Power In Numbers: Using Peer Pressure for Positive Influence

(Editor’s note: This article from a past issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)


Just as peer pressure can influence negative behavior, it can be a catalyst for good, leading to improved grades, reduced HIV infection rates, and even the ousting of a dictator, Tina Rosenberg argues in her book, “Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Change the World.” She terms it “the social cure” — which is like positive peer pressure, or the power of small groups for increasing learning, happiness, and social change. Rosenberg, a New York Times writer and Pulitzer Prize winner for her 1996 book, “The Haunted Land: Facing Europe’s Ghosts After Communism,” about how Eastern Europe faced the crimes of communism, talks about this new power.

Brain World: What can you tell us about why our brains are wired for the peer-pressure solutions you describe?

Tina Rosenberg: Some of the reasons we do stupid things can come from our brain chemistry. Lots of people try cigarettes or drugs or drink. But some people’s genes make them more susceptible to being hooked. Studies of twins show that impulsivity is largely a genetic trait, as is thrill-seeking. Both are linked to low levels of serotonin in the brain.

We have very strong ego defenses that allow us to deny that our behavior is bad when that fact becomes too uncomfortable, or permit us to rationalize it away. We couldn’t live without these ego defenses, but they can also make a lot of trouble. The need to justify bad behavior to ourselves can turn into a vicious circle. We can be so unwilling to hear anything that produces cognitive dissonance that we create cocoons around us.

Drug users, for example, often reduce their social circle to other users — they don’t want to hang out with anyone who would question their behavior. When their entire peer group is other drug users, it is very difficult to get them to quit. They usually won’t quit until an alternative peer group offers a different, healthier kind of peer pressure.

BW: Certain behavior-change campaigns have worked so well, like the groundbreaking anti-smoking ad that was the first to make Big Tobacco the villain. And then with other problems, like obesity, nothing has seemed to work. Are there issues that are impervious to the social-cure campaign?

TR: Teen smoking seemed like it was impervious to everything [too]. There are biological issues, such as a propensity to addiction, that make certain problems very tough to solve. But in general, my guess is that as long as we are talking about bad behavior that is in some ways reinforced by a peer group — gangs, drinking, addictions, bad parenting, overspending — then the social cure can help. In each of these cases, a bad peer group helped get us into this mess by setting a certain social norm. A different peer group, then, can help by exerting pressure for a healthier social norm.

BW: Given all you know now about what works, if you were to recommend a “join the club” campaign to combat obesity, what would it be?

TR: An unhealthy weight becomes normal — a vicious circle at work. But if there is a vicious circle, there can be a virtuous one. That’s the part that peer pressure can help with. Diet groups, whether Weight Watchers or informal meetings of neighbors, are a proven success. You do think twice about ordering French fries if you know that there will be a group weigh-in. [But] peer groups can work against you if they are too sympathetic — if you come back from vacation 5 pounds heavier, and everyone in your group says, “Aww, don’t worry.” That’s the worst kind of negative peer pressure — even my diet group says it’s okay. You need tough love, not understanding.

BW: Positive peer groups have worked with gangs, and it’s been shown to work with some extremist groups. Could this be a more effective anti-terrorism tool than anything to date?

TR: There is very little data on what works with terrorism, so all this is speculation. But I think it could be extremely effective. The comparison with gang violence is very apt. There is no mystery about why kids join gangs. The most important reason is that their friends join them. Peer groups draw young people into gangs and crime, and it is intuitive — although not as well researched — that peer groups draw them out again. There are well-respected scholars who argue that Islamic terrorism is subject to the same forces.

BW: What are some tips for beginners to apply your concept to their own lives?

TR: If there’s any problem you are facing whose solution involves mustering the willpower to start doing something differently or to persist with it, it’s worth thinking about whether the social cure can help. I would also advise parents who are nervous about the many bad influences on kids these days to be as proactive as possible about their children’s friends. My instinct is that children’s peers are more influential in how they grow up than anything else — including what kind of parent you are!

BW: Underneath it all, people just want connections, and groups are the best way to get them. Have you discovered the key to happiness here?


TR: We need people. And we have less people in our lives than ever before. This is a trend that started well before the internet. Other people make us healthy. Joining a club that meets just once a month has the same effect on your life expectancy as quitting smoking. Other people also make us happy. So yes, connections with other people are the key to happiness.

(Editor’s note: This article from a past issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)

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