Skip to main content

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

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Christian and Technology, A Review

The central argument of John Fresko’s  The Christian  and Technology  is that technology is a double-edged sword that requires cautious and intentional use. Continuous uncritical use of technology erodes hunger for the Word of God, makes us self-centred and turns our useful devices into idols. The book intends to promote proper use of technology by encouraging us to dig into our hearts to see whether Christ so fills us that nothing can drag us away from him. Fresko believes there is no need for us to flee from technology or become Luddites because technology is value neutral. It is not in of itself good or bad. Instead, we must focus on carefully evaluating how we think about and use technology. This necessarily requires us  not only to understand the relevant technology, but also understand ourselves. A key part of this is recognising that we struggle with technology because we lack contentment in Christ. The book explores explores six different technologies. I think the most fascina

I am what I am by Gloria Gaynor

Beverly Knight closed the opening ceremony of the Paralympics with what has been dubbed the signature tune of the Paralympics. I had no idea Ms Knight is still in the singing business. And clearly going by the raving reviews she will continue to be around. One media source says her performance was so electric that "there wasn’t a dry eye to be seen as she sang the lyrics to the song and people even watching at home felt the passion in her words" . The song was Gloria Gaynor's I am what I am . Clearly not written by Gloria Gaynor but certainly musically owned and popularized by her. It opens triumphantly: I am what I am / I am my own special creation / So come take a look / Give me the hook or the ovation / It's my world that I want to have a little pride in / My world and it's not a place I have to hide in / Life's not worth a damn till you can say I am what I am The words “I am what I am” echo over ten times in the song. A bold declaration that she

Today I Learned

The puritan John Miles (1621-1683)   founded the first Baptist Church in Wales. He then emigrated to America shortly after the Act of Uniformity (1662) when 2,000 ministers were ejected from the Established Church. With a large proportion of his church, Miles settled at a new Swansea, about ten miles from Providence in Rhode Island. The church grew in face of persistent opposition.   Once, when Miles was brought before the  magistrates on some charge, he asked for a Bible. He then quoted Job 19:28 - Ye should say, Why persecute we him, seeing the root of the matter is found in me ? (KJV). He stopped there and sat down. The court was so convicted by the content and context of the passage that their cruelty gave way to kindness. ( Source : An Introduction to the Baptists, Erroll Hulse)