How to know if an influence is good or bad?

Influence could be good or bad, positive or negative? A notion that is more a matter of common conception than of scientific reality, even if social psychology has taken an interest in it.

It is not necessary to question whether it is fair to consider that there can be negative influences when referring to trauma, alienation or indoctrination, to mention only some of its most telling forms. The whole point of this article is to see if we could, by argumentation, manage to define whether influence can be beneficial in a general way, according to the context, in all honesty and intellectual vigilance.

More simply, can we talk about good influence? Does a good influence exist? If a good influence exists, to what extent is it identifiable and what makes it possible to define that it is universally and unmistakably good in all its effects?

Can all these questions be answered a priori? Let’s try.

The question of whether some influences are less harmful than others in their effects is not one, that is quite clear. Whether it is in a similar context or not.

We can use as an example the case of a friend’s advice in a similar context of buying a car and the case of two subjects with different contexts.

The context of buying a car, where you tell a friend, assuming that you would be likely to follow the advice given and thus be influenced:

You have two children aged 12 and 14, your spouse’s car is a city car, your family’s outdoor activities are surfing and mountain biking, and the average distance you travel each year is 20,000 km, mainly national roads and highways.

A first friend might consider your situation and advise you to take a small truck.

Another friend might advise you, for a similar budget, taking into account his own desire or the representation he has of a good car, as it happens so often, to direct you towards a sportier model, such as a sports coupe.

If we analyze the effects of this advice from a purely practical point of view, as it is possible to analyze it from many angles, then, if we assume that vacation trips and outdoor activities will be more complicated, we can simply conclude here that there is one influence that can cause more problems than the other, a priori: the advice proposing him a sports coupe.

It is possible in this situation to take another point of view, that of “driving pleasure”, which is highly subjective, but the idea here is to remain on the surface of the question of representations, so in this case the most harmful advice would be the opposite of the previous one: the advice proposing the family break.

You may object that in this example, many elements of the context and the criteria of choice have been put aside to judge the nature of the influence and you would be perfectly right.

We can also conclude something else: to try to evaluate the effects of the influence it is necessary to make a lot of postulates which makes any conclusion naturally highly conditional.

In the case of two subjects with different contexts now, let’s take up simple everyday examples:

A friend will advise you on the make and model of TV you should buy, as he is supposed to know better.

Another friend will advise you on the choice of a psychologist to find solutions to your relationship problems, because he has heard good things about this professional.

Please note that I place influencers in the position of supposedly knowing subjects (authority status), which gives them a superior power of influence, this has been demonstrated by social psychology. This is called the “authority of the source” for those who would like to do further research.

The advice that is potentially the most harmful in its effects will, of course, be that of the psychologist, because after all if you choose the wrong television set, you will certainly be annoyed by a few odds and ends, but the profound impact on your life will be less than if you choose to put your married life in the hands of a bad psychologist.

I repeat, we are evaluating the potential seriousness of the problems that could arise by following one or other of these advice.

As we have just seen, it is clear that there are influences that are less harmful than others. But is there such a thing as a good influence and can we define what it is?

The problem is not so simple, because how to define that an influence is good, what are its characteristics and in whose eyes is it good?

As I introduced in another article, if we take the problem from the social point of view, the common thought could consider that a “good” influence would be the one of a friend who is going to pull a student towards civism or knowledge, rather than towards delinquency or ignorance.

At first glance, it is easy to agree that this example is a good influence, because it is assumed that it has no apparent bad side.

Obviously, this will depend on the values and representations of each person, but there is no scale for rating or valuing influence, nor any tool for evaluating or quantifying the nature of its impact. Social psychology construct experiments, of course, but these are based on specific subjects and on the perception of individuals.

It is therefore in the deepening of the level of detail of its potential effects that we will be able to have a more precise representation of it, although we will try to make abstraction of the fact that it depends on the representations of each one. From a general point of view, of course. In short, I will try to simplify without distorting the reasoning. It’s up to you to consider if I succeed.

Let’s explore the question of civility and knowledge globally to assess, a priori, whether pulling a child toward them could be considered a “good” influence:

So I will try to use an example that shows the opposite.

Aren’t there beings with great knowledge and quality civic education transmitted by school and family who ended up inventing and developing weapons of mass destruction like the atomic bomb?

Aren’t there other beings who have decided to use them?

I think we can assume that high-ranking military officers or a president, have received a civic education and undoubtedly have a high level of training and knowledge necessary to achieve these functions where there are very few elected.

We can also project onto these individuals values, a strong sense of morality and everything else we imagine they should possess.

I am simply trying to support my point and one should not confuse knowledge and civic-mindedness with intelligence and humanity.

From this, I deduce that it’s important to have a clear understanding of what a word mean but also that a difference must be made between the perception of something from a general point of view and the reality of a specific potential or actual situation.

In other words, what in appearance, civic-mindedness and knowledge, may as well be a bit quickly considered as a good influence, may later turn out to have been more harmful than becoming a local petty criminal or even a murderer. Especially if one refers to the concept so often treated in American films of “greater good”, which can justify everything (the collective good, the concern for what is beneficial to the greatest number). In this case, I specify it, because it is indeed the military and an American president that we are talking about in our example. But I could have chosen other examples in history from any other country in the world. To go further, this is still the case, even if we compare a serial murderer to the effects of an atomic bomb dropped on a city! And I do not support any argument that what happens in wartime is justified by the context, it would be like trying to justify the exactions of the church at the time when it sought by all means to impose the one god in a way that went against its action and the beliefs and values it sought to promote. There is in both of these examples a profoundly unsustainable and senseless justification for action.

In conclusion, I consider that to define in part whether an influence is good or bad, this cannot be done a priori, but only by appreciating both the context and the finality. The finality being here the moment when it will be possible for the individual to consider in fact that his action, born from this initial influence, by being able to isolate it in the continuum of his life, is beneficial or harmful for himself or for the others in an unmistakable way. In an ideal situation where the individual does not have a biased representation of reality.

We can take another example related to orientation. At some point, I have to put the debate in the context of my specialty. A head teacher advises a student to choose a path and he finds a profession in which he enjoys his whole life, without questioning or doubting. This individual deeply believes that he is fulfilled and that he has had the best possible professional life. Even if he is not aware that, given his personality, priorities, values and what makes sense to him, he could have been even more fulfilled in another profession, this has no impact on him, since he bases his feelings and his perception of his existence only on what he knows.

Therefore, we come back to the simple concept that what you don’t know won’t hurt you.

The same is true if the individual is blind to the fact that he believes that he is happy in his job when he’s not, not seeing all the external signs that could lead him to question his representations and feelings. Whether or not the individual’s representations are well founded and as close as possible to reality as it is and not as it is perceived does not change his feeling of having chosen the right job and being happy. In this context, the words representation, feeling, perception are interchangeable.

I am speaking here of a “strict” or ideal reality, the reality of fact, for example that the sky is blue or that fir trees are green. I am not talking about the concept of reality from the point of view of psychology and social psychology in particular, where reality is considered as a representation of the individual, implying, to simplify, that there are several realities.

We can create the link here with employees who are victims of max out in the sense that they are not aware of the lack of meaning in their work, have a distorted perception of reality and consider themselves happy and fulfilled, and where their feeling of fulfillment is only a psychological defense process. I only offer you a very brief description of this syndrome and I refer you to my dedicated article on this syndrome for a more complete description.

To return to the student who was influenced in his career choice, I therefore consider that I can conclude that for him, in the end, the influence of his main teacher was a good influence, since it is the representation that he has of it. For others, with more elements concerning his personality and a precise hypothetical life plan of another professional activity and with objective observation criteria, it could be that they consider that it was a bad influence. We fall into the diversity of points of view to evaluate an influence, that of the individual himself and that of the others, whatever their group.

Even if a panel of judges were able to extrapolate a realistic picture of what his life might have been like, his accomplishments, his joys, quantify his fulfillment, and determine with certainty that another job might have made him more … that would not in fact make it a bad influence to begin with.

That said, it is above all the perceptions of the individual that interest us, if we consider that he does not know and cannot take into account the perception that others have of him, his life and his work, and that this does not therefore have any influence on him.

In this example of career choice, only the individual can, in my opinion, define whether an influence is “good” or “bad” for him and can only be considered by comparing, in the long run, once its effects are definitive, two situations, two life paths, one of which is hypothetical, and the two perceptions that he has of them the first situation is the result of the identified influence, the second hypothetical, which would be the product of another influence or of an absence of influence. Given these elements, this is impossible.

I conclude that an influence can only be evaluated by its victim, if he is aware of it and if his representations of the effects of this influence are inscribed in a strict reality and via a process that he cannot implement and that cannot have in all its aspects foundations in reality.

In other words, it is perfectly incoherent to try to qualify an influence as good or bad.

After a quick search, I could not find in the literature or on the Internet any precise and really relevant elements on the question. It appears that it is commonly accepted to consider that an influence is good or bad without evaluating its long-term effects, without any temporal dimension and without any further investigation, as if one could be satisfied with a quick, fuzzy, subjective and meaningless representation.

When we detect and identify it, we judge a priori what influences us or could influence the other by quickly qualifying it according to our own representations. Representations biased by our idea of reality.

I first found some elements about good and bad influence on a personal development website, which does not make it a very serious approach, we will see. I also found a social science research that I will present next.

Since it is freely available to anyone who will do some research on the subject it is important to mention it, here is an example of a reflection on the good and bad influence of the site “penser et agir” (“think and act”) https://www.penser-et-agir.fr/se-faire-influencer/ a search like “how not to be influenced” (I did mine in French) in your search engine will offer you many others in the same genre. I will use a very small excerpt that will be quite sufficient.

First of all, here is how the author of the site introduces himself, this is a translation: “After obtaining my master’s degree in Science at the University of Nantes in 2009, I worked for 4 years as a design engineer for the biggest French names in aerospace, nuclear and military. In February 2012, as I no longer find any meaning in my job, I created Penser et Agir. This is how I reconnect with my passions: psychology, personal development and entrepreneurship. I adapted to psychology and personal development the logic and structure of reasoning that I had acquired as a study engineer to create my own approach: personal development through action. Today, think and act is more than 100,000 visitors per month, more than 150,000 newsletter subscribers and more than 3,000 people who have already trusted me by following my online programs.”

Before offering you the excerpt from the site, I will need to introduce the author Dale Carnegie who wrote “Public Speaking and Influencing Men in Business” a few decades ago and republished under its current title “How to Make Friends and Influence People” in 1936, since the article mentions it. So much for how things have changed since it was written. It’s a book originally written to motivate salespeople and managers, and you can feel it since that’s the context of most of the examples. We can find analyses, such as the one in Wikipedia, which states that his methods try to bring out “intentional sincerity”, I don’t agree on this point, but it would take too long to go into it in this article.

So this is what it says on the website, it is once again a translation, and yes it’s a good one, if you feel it’s poorly written or nonsense, I can assure you that this is the right translation of the original text:

“First, the Carnegie Method suggests banning criticism and blame among friends. Humans are naturally resistant to criticism, and instinctively shy away from those who want to influence them by criticism, blame or reproach. By following this rule of the Carnegie Method, you will easily make good friends who will influence you for the better.

The second phase of the Carnegie Method is honest and sincere praise. Friends who praise and encourage push others to do the same. As long as you are known to be sincere in your praise, you will easily make good friends. This Carnegie method works every time, even on those with a defeatist mindset. So take advantage of it, and praise like crazy.

The third tip of the Carnegie method is to motivate others when you want them to act in a certain way. To influence, don’t be like the blackmailers and narcissistic followers. Instead, motivate. Show the other person that they can do what you suggest, and they will be happy to do it. This is the only way to positively influence a person.”

Paragraph title: “Thinking differently to avoid being influenced

“Here’s a truth you may not know: both bad and good influences attract each other.

When you tend to make friends who can be influenced, you have to ask yourself these questions:

    Why are there so many of them around me?

    Could it be because I myself tend to influence others negatively?

    To avoid being influenced, should I influence others for the better?

Lesson? Chances are that those who influence you are also more or less influenced by you. To stop letting yourself be manipulated, is therefore to start in some cases by avoiding influencing others negatively. Here’s one way to cultivate positive thoughts with music.”

Here is the downloadable pdf of the webpage from Penser et Agir

There is really something to say about influence, in the text, in every sentence, but I think you will have understood that it would be a rather vain enterprise. It is unfortunately symptomatic of what you constantly encounter on the web and in some books.

I think this is a striking example where the content, the articulation, the lack of argumentation and logic of the discourse shows how important it is to develop a critical mind to counter the constant influence we face. I am doubtful when I think that this type of content can be read by 100,000 visitors per month and more than 150,000 subscribers to the newsletter. So, of course, some (many) are not fooled and their radar must have alerted them many times when reading the excerpt which for the time being is a real gold mine.

To stay on the issue of good and bad influence, I will extract elements from the excerpt that relate solely to this topic.

I must confess that before I begin, I have the feeling that texts of this type, given to the minds in this way, could make the most serious of the convinced give up on the importance of his action.

The freedom of speech seems obvious, but we can see here the real problem and the dark side of the concept, especially when we make the parallel with the “noise or fog of information” represented by the plurality of sources and articles on the same subject, all more futile than the others and which bury the quality articles.

Superficial critique of the article excerpt:

“you will easily make good friends who will influence you for good.”

The terms “good friends” and “will influence for good” are subjective and should be defined, detailed and argued. In this form, it makes no sense and does not allow us to understand what he means by “influence for good”.

“Instead, motivate. Show the other person that they can do what you suggest, and they will be happy to do it. This is the only way to positively influence a person.”

The fact that the other person thinks that we are capable of doing what he or she asks of us is enough to make us want to do it. This is a distortion of what Carnegie explains in his book, which is in reality a method of manipulating employees to get them back to doing their jobs well, without creating conflict or problems.

What is stated is questionable in itself and in this form, it is false. If my wife asks me to do the dishes and explains that I can do them or even compliment me on all the aspects of my technique that make me a professional dishwasher in order to make me feel good about myself and to give me the desire to consolidate my reputation, it will not make me want to do them.

We need to be aware of a very important distinction, which most readers may not make. Professional and personal context cannot be amalgamated, the setting, context and power relationship among other things are quite different. And on the other hand, manipulation/influence does not work every time. This is a hazardous generalization.

Then, it would be necessary to explain how this influence is positive, I would appreciate a demonstration.

Another seemingly peremptory statement: “the only way”.

To assert such a thing cannot be without argumentation.

Let’s move on to the next sentence: “Here’s a truth you may not know: both bad and good influences attract each other.”

For the author it is a truth: Bad and good influences attract one another! Perhaps it would be necessary to develop and argue such a statement.

And I would end with this last excerpt:

“To stop letting yourself be manipulated, is therefore to start in some cases by avoiding influencing others negatively.”

Beyond my problems of understanding this sentence whether taken in context or not, we don’t know what “negatively influencing others” is, for the author.

To conclude briefly on these excerpts, I do not understand how the author can conceptualize such a debauchery of assertions, which in this form have no logical link between them that is clarified, without explaining himself. We are no further ahead on the question of good and bad influence and how to identify them.

I invite you now, if you have not already done so, to read my article on influence “5 simple steps to protect yourself from influence” which goes into the importance of questioning the legitimacy of the source and its discourse.

The problem here is that many will understand his speech by projection and echo with their own experience, for example, and these elements will unfortunately sometimes be adopted as new beliefs without further investigation.

We now need to delve deeper into the question of how our representations influence and shape our quick opinions about whether they are good or bad.

Let’s move on to the social science experimentation on the issue of influence and their representations: : Les relations d’influence et leurs représentations, Stéphane Laurens, in the Revue européenne des sciences sociales, 2014/2 (52-2) that you can read on this page.

Here is the author’s summary of the research (this is a translation): “The analysis of 238 descriptions of influence situations (collected during 18 semi-structured interviews) allows us to describe the link between the positive versus negative effects attributed to influence and the nature of the influence relationship. Our results indicate that influence is described as having negative effects when the source is unknown or distant. Conversely, in situations described as experienced by our informants, or when the source is close, the effects of influence are positive. It seems that in the representations of our informants, the possibility of establishing a reciprocal relationship would be linked to positive effects of influence (or negative in case of asymmetrical influence).”

It is really important to understand that an individual’s perception of a thing does not reflect its reality. On the other hand, this thing is real, for him. It is therefore a research in social psychology on the perception that people have of good or bad influence, which are common qualitative evaluation terms. It is not really a question of being able to define what a good or bad influence is and how to verify it, but only to define the perception that an individual has of an influence and in what way this one is rather positive or negative depending on the source. This study therefore does not seek to determine what would allow us to define what a good or bad influence is or if it is even possible to use such a qualification. The reality of this qualification is therefore implicitly validated in this research.

Study population:

“18 semi-structured interviews (about 1.5 hours long) with 9 men and 8 women (teacher, journalist, computer scientist, salesman, retiree, students, police officer, publisher, administration employee, leisure facility manager, mechanic worker, unemployed)”

Is this a sufficiently representative sample?

Let’s quickly look at the results:

  • 1) Participants contrast good and bad influence, out of context, and this forms the basis of their thinking.
  • 2) “Effects are generally assessed from the consequences of the influence on the person influenced.”
  • 3) “Sometimes it is from the intention (for example altruistic or selfish) of the one who exerts an influence that the effect produced is evaluated.”
  • 4) This evaluation starts the reflection, but does not appear anymore when we enter the description of the influence situations.

Participants are usually in a position of being influenced.

Experienced influence tends to be evaluated positively. Non-experienced situations are rated as negative by 71%.

The negative influences mentioned only concern sects, media, politics and religion, however, rarely experienced in general.

Regarding positive influences:

The effects of influence are always described positively among friends, and very often positively in the family (87.5%) and education (83.3%).

According to the participants, certain positive influences lead to the socialization and internalization of group norms. They come from people with a higher status, recognized as competent, experienced and applied on less competent or experienced people allowing to train them. Finally, in these areas, participants regularly emphasize the positive intentions of those who consciously exert influence: they want to help, advise, transmit their values. The notion of mixed influence appears in the perception of some participants, an influence that is neither good nor bad.

Drawing conclusions from such a small sample seems to me to be daring.

There are a few important things that I think this study reveals that the authors do not mention.

The individual prefers to think that the influence was beneficial, but what is it that drives him to convince himself of this? We can assume a priori that it is a defense or adaptation mechanism in the form of a cognitive bias. It would be interesting to investigate this further.

The representations and beliefs of each person only have value and meaning for themselves and may even be totally stupid for others, not being able to be argued. Moreover they may not represent the public opinion at all, that person may be part of a small group of people in the world to think that. I will extract a few examples of participants’ comments from the study, so that you can understand my point:

“When the one who has power threatens and imposes his ideas, the influence is not reciprocal, not healthy.”

This implies that it is healthier when the influence is reciprocal and that one can influence the other in turn.

We are here joining the discourse of the author of the blog quoted above.

How is it healthier? That remains to be seen. Do many people share this view?

“The family and friendship influence, that is, the friends who are supportive and are there to help us when we are sinking or falling, well that influence […] is positive because it is supportive.” This implies that a support is an influence, and that all support is a positive influence. One may wonder here if the participant has the same definition of the words influence and support as the dictionary definition. In a study of this type, it seems to me that it is essential to ensure a common reference point for the vocabulary and definition of the different terms on which the study is based.

In any case, the support of a loved one is not necessarily an influence! Helping a friend to do the shopping after an operation is not influence and, in another context, there are many individuals who know how to listen without giving advice and fortunately, listening is not influence. Here we are faced with a conception that is totally imprisoned in personal beliefs and often individuals tend to believe that what they experience or think is experienced or thought by others, that their thinking is somehow “normalized”. If one cannot demonstrate that support is influence, then it is even less possible to demonstrate that this influence is positive because it is support.

In particular, the support that an individual could give to a friend suffering from depression, thinking that it will help and influence him positively, could be to encourage him to stop letting himself go with a comment such as “Move, go play sports!”. This would be very far from being effectively positive in the sense that it could, for example, make him feel guilty or infantilized and you would risk reinforcing his feeling of devaluation when this was not at all the desired effect. This example allows us to conclude something interesting: the influence perceived as positive by the sender can be perceived as negative by the receiver and even have negative effects, according to him, or in fact. This is one more argument showing that it is totally dependent on representations and that in order to qualify it, it is indispensable to evaluate its definitive effects objectively, and this by the one being influenced. This does not save us from the power of the representations of this individual, norms, value systems, etc.

The second aspect that we have already discussed and that stands out here is that the context is essential to make sense of the statements and either the individuals did not give any, or the researchers did not think it was useful or important to mention them.

Let’s take another quote from the study’s panel.

“A child […] is a blotter, it is quite easy to know what is going on and what is being said around him. It’s a form of influence and as parents I think we use it a lot, but in a beneficial way, of course.”

Here we find the belief that many parents would instrumentalize their children to gossip and that this is a beneficial influence. Or have I misunderstood? In any case, the mechanisms are the same as in the example described above. The individual, rightly or wrongly, considers his belief as normalized. On the other hand, the fact that he considers this influence as beneficial would have to be explained and argued.

This poses the limits of an experiment based on people’s perception. And few people in this case for the above research. This is one of the main flaws of all works on the perception of individuals. This being biased and relative to their knowledge, norms, belief systems and education, it is rarely relevant to draw generalizations that can serve as a solid basis for other works unless they are also based on perception.

One can assume that if one of these individuals had had a more in-depth knowledge of marketing and political manipulation techniques and the issues of everyday influence within the family, school and workplace, more relevant data could have come up. In short, in such experiments, the erudition of the source is a central parameter, a point we have already identified.

We can finish this analysis by mentioning that the central point that is verified by this study and that we had already identified is that individuals form an a priori idea of the nature of an influence, without deepening it, without analyzing its definitive effects and quickly so that it can be simply conceptualized and expressed.

In this sense, I join the work of Moscovici (1994) and the analysis of Lalli, Pina. « Représentations sociales et communication », Hermès, La Revue, vol. 41, no. 1, 2005, pp. 59-64. This is the translation “when he proposes us to transform the concept of collective representations in ‘phenomenon of social representations’ (1984). He notes that a special type of representations has the capacity to combine heterogeneous aspects in a unity that does not necessarily need logical consistency—in the strict sense of the term—but rather a practical consistency that can cope with the very diverse situations of contemporary societies. He proposes us a distinction between the reified universe of the science and the consensual world of the everyday life: it is in this one that he invites us to recognize a naive social thought, ‘of amateurs’. (…) It is a thought which likes analogies, pressed by the haste to reach effective conclusions, either by the trivial and sociable conversation, or by constraints leading to extreme poles rather than to a consensus founded on a rational or majority mediation. Its goal is, first of all, practical efficiency in the face of interference and unknown information, which reach individuals who are at the crossroads of multiple communicative flows. These are flows that overflow, for example, from the scientific universe to migrate into the horizons of ordinary practical experience, through increasingly widespread technical means of communication.”

In itself, it is about individuals forming a representation of the social world and its interactions in a very simplified form in order to be able to form a quick and useful representation of it.

If our social representations forge determined forms of meaning and our reality, why it is from these that we try to apprehend influence. If influence can only be evaluated according to the finality of its effects and through the representations of its victim, then is it only possible to do so?

In order to try to make the impossible possible, simplification and common thought appear inevitable. It is probably less distressing to have a false idea of reality than to be aware that one cannot have a true one?

I tend to think that if we conclude that its effects cannot be assessed and controlled, it may be time to try to control its use.