Jonah Berger '98: The Catalyst

by Jasmine Xu '20

Blair Magnet alumnus Jonah Berger, class of ’98, is an author, consultant, and professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania with expertise in social influence and marketing. His two previously published books, Contagious and Invisible Influence, have taken readers along deep dives into how trends go viral and the factors which subconsciously influence our behavior, respectively. In a fluid continuation of this theme, Berger’s most recently published book The Catalyst: How to Change Anyone’s Mind, delves into the science of persuasion.

The Catalyst by Jonah Berger
Why does pushing at people, attempting to coax them with facts and reason, only seem to increase resistance? Berger suggests that rather than approaching persuasion with the goal of luring others to our side, we ought to reduce the roadblocks that are stopping people from changing and “lower the barriers that keep people from taking action.” In this way, he says, being a catalyst for change is analogous to the role of a chemical catalyst—a substance which increases a reaction rate by providing an alternate, faster, mechanism for change.

The 5 key phrases which Berger describes as critical for catalyzing persuasion—reactance, endowment, distance, uncertainty, corroborating evidence—are each explored in greater detail within their own chapters in The Catalyst. For example, there was a sudden surge in Tide Pod consumption after Tide released promotional messaging insisting that Tide Pods were only for doing laundry. This unexpected outcome—in which people behaved in a manner contrary to what was expressly warned—Berger attributes to reactance, which is described as people’s innate “anti-persuasion radar.” After all, when people sense an attempt to limit their freedoms, they tend to push back on the inhibition by doing exactly what they were told not to do; in cases such as the Tide Pod Challenge or anti-cigarette messaging, this may even be at the cost of their personal health or safety. The Catalyst illustrates how we can reduce reactance in our persuasion attempts by suggesting methods such as the provision of a menu, which guides the subject to a constrained set of outcomes while providing the illusion of freedom.

The book certainly has a business-school bend: following each chapter is a real-world case study which applies the mantras and mechanisms just described, and in the back of The Catalyst are three appendices with names such as “Active Listening Boot Camp,” providing additional context behind some of the persuasive techniques mentioned prior. But ultimately the text is eminently readable, and Berger is careful to stress that anyone can apply the knowledge found within to catalyze change—whether that’s on the scale of a single person, a business, or an industry.