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Betsy Levy Paluck is a Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton University and serves as the deputy director of the Center for Behavioral Science and Policy. In 2017, she won the MacArthur Fellow Award, commonly-called the “Genius Grant,” for her research on social influence.

Paluck recently spoke at the Gleacher Center as a part of the Think Better speaker series hosted by the Roman Family Center for Decision Research. Her talk “Who Influences Us?” explored how everyday people play an important role in amplifying the influence of leaders and celebrities.

Consuming Media Socially 

Drawing on her research on the Rwandan genocide, Paluck first wanted to help the audience understand how influence works. One of the biggest influencers of behavior today is media, and this was no different during the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Paluck’s research found that one popular radio station in particular, RTLM, had a profound impact inducing collective acts of violence that resulted in the deaths of thousands of civilians. Expert witnesses even reported that civilians would say “if you want to stop the violence, stop RTLM.” Paluck wanted to understand why the media had such an outsized influence on collective violence. 

Media influence is channeled socially. One of the most common ways to listen to the radio in Rwanda was in a group with others. When consuming media in a group, people are able to perceive the reactions of those around them and absorb messages about the behavior and opinions of the group. This is why listening to RTLM caused an increase in collective violence instead of individual violence. The media coordinates people to think and act collectively by telling the listener what other people in their society are thinking. 

The social consumption of media isn’t just an influence in major social and political conflicts. Paluck cited Taylor Swift’s recent appearances at NFL games. Not only is social media flooded with videos of Swift cheering for boyfriend Travis Kelce, but it is also filled with videos of people watching the videos of her watching the games. This demonstrates how people look to others to makes sense of the world around them. The media does not only tell us what to think, but it tells us what other people are thinking, doing, and endorsing to help us construct our own understandings.

Personal Opinions vs. Norm Perceptions

Paluck then discussed how influence has different impacts on personal opinion and perception of societal norms. To demonstrate this distinction, Paluck described studies she conducted during two Supreme Court cases. The first was Obergefell v. Hodges, the case that legalized same-sex marriage in 2015. The study surveyed citizens before the Supreme Court released their decision. The survey first asked about their personal opinion and then what they thought was the opinion of the general American population. After the Supreme Court released its decision in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage, citizens were surveyed again using the same questions. Paluck found that while there was no difference in citizen’s personal opinions on same-sex marriage, they were much more likely to think others supported same-sex marriage after the ruling. Together with the post-decision media, the Supreme Court decision influenced the perception of societal norms to show more favor towards same-sex marriage. The influencers, in this case the Supreme Court and the media, suddenly re-shaped perceptions of social norms.

Paluck ran a similar study during Dobbs v. Jackson, the Supreme Court case that overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022. Again, she surveyed the population using the same two questions before and after the Supreme Court released their decision. But after the ruling, the media coverage highlighted opposition to the court’s ruling. Again Paluck’s research found no difference in personal opinions about abortion access before and after the Supreme Court decision. But this time, respondents were more likely to think others supported access to abortion, despite the court’s ruling to restrict access. Coverage of opposition to the court’s ruling increased the perception that the pro-choice position was more popular. 

Field-Tested Interventions to Break Problematic Cycles

In Paluck’s research, she has found that the biggest influence on behavior is the influence of our perception of others’ behavior. Bringing her research to middle schools in the United States, Paluck wanted to observe everyday norms that may cause bullying and harassment in schools. To do this, she built networks of attention. These networks mapped which of their peers students paid attention to. Paluck found a clear group of students who set the community norm of behavior and influenced the behaviors of other students. She categorized these students as either “widely known” or as “clique leaders.” Paluck then took the widely known and clique leaders and coached them through an anti-bullying program. Later, she surveyed the student-body and found that bullying and harassment behavior had decreased. Consistent with her research, bullying improved more when norm perceptions of behavior changed through influential students than when students were simply presented these lessons by adults. 

Paluck conducted a similar study in Uganda, however this study targeted domestic violence within marriages. The Christian faith is central to the lives of many Ugandans, therefore some of the most influential people in Uganda are pastors. Pastors often provide pre-marital counselling and tended to emphasize the importance of protecting the marriage over protecting the individuals within the marriage. Paluck’s study worked with pastors to alter their marriage counselling by providing exercises in conflict resolution and healthy communication. Because this became the norm set by pastors, Paluck surveyed couples who went through the marriage counselling and found a notable decrease in domestic violence and an increase in healthy communication and conflict resolution practices.


Influence is produced by our perception of others. The media, the Supreme Court, and popular students do not influence us by telling us what to think, but rather by showing us what our community or peers are thinking. In turn, we act in accordance with those norms. This is how social influence works. 

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