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Imaginary Peer Pressure

Tina Rosenberg observes that human beings deceive themselves about their rationality. We don’t usually decide how to behave by weighing the pros and cons. In reality, the strongest influence on our decisions is the example of the people around us. More importantly such “peer influence” is usually imaginary. We have a tendency to overestimate other people’s bad behaviour and therefore we end up behaving more badly ourselves. Calls therefore to reform behaviour by emphasising how bad people are don’t always work very well. In her words :
Bad behaviour is usually more visible than good. It’s what people talk about, it’s what the news media report on, it’s what experts focus on. Experts are always trying to change bad behaviour by warning of how widespread it is, and they take any opportunity to label it a crisis. “The field loves talking about the problems because it generates political and economic support,” said Perkins.

This strategy might feel effective, but it’s not — it simply communicates that bad behaviour is the social norm. Telling people to go against their peer group never works. A better strategy is the reverse: give people credible evidence that among their peers, good behaviour is the social norm.

The best-known application of social norming comes from the company Opower, where Cialdini is chief scientist. If your utility company is a client, then you’ll get a gas or electric bill that compares your energy usage with that of your neighbors in similar-size houses. It gives you a smiley face if you are doing well — two if you are in the top 20 percent — and provides tips on how you can save more energy. Opower cuts usage by 2 percent or more, and sustains those cuts….

It seems that almost anything you would want to nag people about can be more effectively done by instead telling them how much everyone else is doing the right thing. If you want young people to vote, don’t tell them how many people aren’t voting. Tell them how many are. Safe sex, anyone? Hand washing? School attendance?

Why does this work? How could it possibly affect my behaviour to know that other guests in a hotel re-use their towels? Cialdini says that when we don’t know what to do, we look around to see what our peers are doing. From that we learn what is appropriate, and what is practical. With traditional approaches to behaviour change, an outsider comes in, warns you of the dire consequences of your behaviour and tells you what to do differently. That often just makes people defensive.
The methodology behind "social norming" rightly recognises that we are people who constantly want to “fit in” rather than rationally ask what is actually good for us. We are less independent than we think. But more importantly it rightly recognises that “bad news” will always get a greater hearing than good news. So greater effort must be made to positively promote good news.

The reason why bad news dominate of course is we are sinful people living in a sinful world. Bad news will always be more attractive to bad people living in a bad world. There’s an element to which how we communicate and pursue change the reality of sinful nature needs to be front and centre. People are what they are - sinners. And unless we recognise that we wont be effective in our communication. And worse, we will end up merely reinforce their negative to little effect.  

But therein lies the problem. A question may be asked whether “social norming” is too accepting of the human condition. The approach is predicated on not reforming people internally but accepting them as they are and then accentuating the positive - in order that some good may come out of it socially. Rampant use of “normal” may therefore spawn a consequentiality approach to public policy that no longer seeks to challenge people on how they think. A better approach is to recognise that there’s surely a role for public rebuke in order for people to clearly know where society as a whole stand in thinking about problem. In short people need both positive and negative messages about behaviours. 

Copyright © Chola Mukanga 2013

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