Bits of Books - Books by Title

Join The Club

How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World

Tina Rosenberg

Typical attempt to solve a social problem consists of giving people information (sermons) and/or try to motivate through fear. But anything with any emotional content, the more people close their minds to messages that scare them.

More books on Behaviour

South Africa's health surveys showed that young people knew that if other people had unprotected sex, they had a high risk of getting AIDs virus. But that didn't apply to them. Later surveys found that kids were aware of risk, but considered it unavoidable - just part of the background noise.

Henry Laughlin wrote book The Ego and Its Defences in which he catalogs way our minds work to fool ourselves.One of tricks is rationalization. Illustrated with an expt where a student was hypnotised, and told that, when came out of trance, on a signal, he was to take off his shirt, fold it neatly and give it to the teacher. And you will not remember this suggestion. Signal given, shirt came off etc. "Why did you do that?" "Oh because I'm interested in how people react to the unexpected. So I thought it wd be interesting to see how class reacted to unusual behaviour. He had a justification that was ready, fluent and which he earnestly believed, even though it was completely untrue. Rationalization is self-deception to justify an intolerable behaviour by finding motives that are tolerable.

Other defences include reaction formation - outward behaviours that are the opposite of consciously disowned behaviours, notably found in the loud homophobe whose yelling hides his own homosexual feelings.

Evolution has provided us with very good instruments for perceiving reality - eyes capable of detecting colour, motion, granular details - so you wd think it wd have perfected the organs for interpreting reality such that they didn't systematically distort the information once it reaches you. As a rule, self-deception is self-defeating. But there are circumstances central to reproductive success where selective self-deception can help. Animals better at deception - at rearing up and intimidating a stronger rival for example - win more food and have more sex. But deception is difficult - people give away signals when they are bluffing. Some don't, however - people who believe their own stories. When two animals are evaluating each other before fighting or mating, evolution has primed them to be intimidated by the other's confidence. Selective self-deception boosts self-esteem, and sexual partners find high self-esteem attractive. And you try harder if you are sure you can't fail.

More books on Success

Advertising usually fails when its trying to change long-term behaviour - stop smoking, exercise or save for retirement. But it is very effective when it is pushing immediate gratification.

Marketing food to children is a $10 billion dollar industry in the US. And none of this is spent selling watermelon. A study found pre-schoolers thought food tasted better when it came in a McDonald's wrapper than when in a plain one. As part of a campaign to counter their toxic image while major lawsuits were pending in the late 1990's, tobacco companies began to run ads that ostensibly discouraged kids from smoking. "Tobacco is Whacko if You're a Teen". But the message was quite simple - if you want to rebel against adults and their sermons, have a puff. If tobacco is only for adults, then ... Teens smoke to look and feel older, which is why the tobacco industry's framing of the issue - smoking is for grownups - is so effective at getting kids to smoke.

People typically measure themselves and set their own personal rules by looking at the social norms of a handful of peers.

Most of us live in Plato's cave in his Allegory of the Cave in his book Republic. We see shadows on the wall of the cave and think it is reality. When one inhabitant is freed to go outside the cave and see what is casting the shadows, he understands what he has been seeing all his life. But Plato argued that if he goes back into the cave, those who are still prisoner will reject his explanation and insist that he has been corrupted.

Infected South African women understand that breast feeding will pass the infection on to their baby, but bottle-feeding is tantamount to admitting you are HIV+ which almost guarantees exclusion.

More books on Health

Problem that people trying to change behaviour of others seem to think that the job ends when they cast their messages out on the wind. They fail to take account of human foibles that hold us back from acting in our own self-interest.

Take patient adherence - failure to carry out a doctor's orders.In one study, only a quarter of people on blood-pressure pills took drugs correctly. Even people taking medicine they know will be difference between life and death - AIDs patients taking antiretrovirals or transplant patients taking immune suppressants - often don't take them properly. Med students don't take their medicines. Doctors are notorious for ignoring expert advice.

Everyone thinks it's the patient's fault but it's not. It's the fault of the system for not helping people follow rules. Doctors assume that if they tell people what to do they will do it. But they are all aware that this assumption isn't correct. A lot of effort goes into providing services but very little goes into getting people to want to use them. We need to help people get over the social, psychological and social barriers to taking advantages of the solutions.

Public health usually involves a long boring lecture, and crucially, often starts with some graphic statistic about how many people are doing the wrong thing. This fails because you're asking people to go against the norm. Study at Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona where biggest problem is that people steal the petrified wood - about a ton of it a month. Tried 2 different signs on different paths. One sign said "Many past visitors have removed petrified wood from the park, changing the natural state of the forest" and showed a graphic of 3 people taking wood. The other said "Please don't remove wood from the Park, to preserve the natural state of the forest" and graphic had one person with a 'don't!' symbol over his hand. They used marked bits of wood to measure losses. The path with the "Many people steal" sign lost 5 times as much wood as the other: it made stealing the social norm. The key was to show the lonely thief disapproved of by his peers.

Public service communicators tell us how many teenagers are committing suicide, how many drink and drive. This makes contact with our most primitive instinct: what is the crowd doing?

Using fear as a weapon doesn't work on teenagers, who are immortal.

More books on Teenagers

Threats and fear never work to increase condom usage. What worked for teenagers was the message that their fellow teens approved of condoms and were using them themselves.

Reefer Madness a film made by religious groups in 1930's. ("Kids lured into 'marihuana' and their rapid descent into crime and madness") Didn't make a lot of impact then, but in 1970's became popular among youth as a comedy to watch while getting high. The error the makers of the film made is a common one - they base their persuasive efforts on what would move them to action - but they are religious grownups particularly alarmed by drugs. It's a basic principle of advertising that you present a product or a need from the viewpoint of the buyer. People selling cars and toothpaste know this; people selling lawful or moral behaviour treat it as an afterthought.

Apocraphyl quote "smoking's for the young, poor, black and stupid"

More books on Drugs

Berkeley had a problem - it's black students were failing calculus. Usual suspects suggested: blacks weren't as motivated as Asian and Jewish students; came from low-income families which correlates with college failure; uneducated parents who cdn't help or who didn't value education; they'd come from weak high schools so hadn't learnt very much.

But when analysed their background turned out to be: highly motivated - they had to be to fight the prevailing defeatism attached to black students; parents were actually well educated, many of them being teachers themselves, and had often determined that their kids were going to college even before they were born; their SAT scores were actually higher than Asians that were beating them.

More books on Education

Turned out to be the way they studied. The blacks were used to studying by themselves because they'd grown up with few peers. So when they got to college they did the same, and they did the recommended 8 hours study a week. The Chinese studied in groups, sharing ideas on how to attack problems. Someone's cousin wd have had the same lecturer year before, and cd tell them how to approach him to get help. And the Chinese quickly learned that they needed to put in 14 hours a week to keep up. And even more importantly, the study groups gave Chinese students a social group interested in math that encouraged its members to succeed in math.

So Berkeley set up Calculus Club called Emerging Scholars, for blacks and Latinos. They spent extra time just being forced to do hard math problems in groups, as opposed to watching a tutor show them how to do it. Math isn't a spectator sport: you don't learn by watching someone else do it. And they changed the dynamic - questions seen as part of the learning process, rather than something to be avoided in case people thought/confirmed their suspicions about minorities being dumb. Having math friends also impt - getting good grades depended on making more friends to study with and fewer friends to go to the movies with.

London Times Review

Tina Rosenberg, a Pulitzer prize-winning New York Times reporter, has penned successful books focusing on political activism in Latin America and post-communist Europe. Now she has joined the burgeoning group of journalists in search of the "big idea". In her case it is peer pressure and what she calls "social cure". Whether we are seeking to depose a dictator, encourage safe sex, improve public health or lose weight, we will succeed only if the people we know and respect are working with us. Top-down exhortations from the state or large corporations do not work.

She begins her journey in post-apartheid South Africa. The government there was appallingly lethargic about dealing with the HIV/Aids crisis. The campaigns that did exist were patronising and unsuccessful. Then an enterprising activist, Judi Nwokedi, came up with a campaign, loveLife, that was "positive, hip and fun". This, according to Rosenberg, plugged into the consumerist tendencies of a once-isolated country. If safe sex could be associated with fashion, music and youth culture - in other words, if behaviour could be changed by peer pressure - the campaign stood a chance of succeeding. And apparently it did, with new HIV infection rates falling - but only for those still in school. Once they left to lead a more atomised life, that pressure waned.

The most compelling passages in the book focus on the Serbian street-level protest group Otpor ('resistance'. Its members were not allowed to give speeches or to act like politicians. Instead it worked, suggests Rosenberg, only because its methods were so appealing to those who took part. It began as a bunch of students who set themselves one goal: to remove Slobodan Milosevic, using a mix of mockery, branding and determination. The author acutely and amusingly charts their tactics. Each time someone was imprisoned they would hold a festival of music, football and basketball outside the jail. Young men would vie to see how many times they could get arrested. On one day they inundated police stations around the country with offerings of cake. This presented the authorities with a dilemma - how to respond to an incessant bombardment of humour.

Rosenberg's message is that activism makes a difference only if people can associate with it, just as they associate with modern brands. Otpor died away after it achieved its immediate goal - Milosevic's demise. But I'm not sure what's new in this. In the former East Germany, for example, street protests began as bottom up, succeeding in their aims, only to see many of their original goals (a leftist democracy for their country) overtaken by unification with the west.

The author also takes us to India, to a village near Jamkhed - a place so grim that medics from the local town tried not to visit. Two young Indian doctors, arriving there in 1970, realised that the issue was less the level of medical care, terrible though it was, and more the absence of public health education. Gradually people begin to help each other, through an awareness of the basics of hygiene, education and the treatment of women. This is heartwarming; but as with other examples, it does not break new ground.

Rosenberg then alights at Brixton mosque. She tells the story of its former leader Abdul Haqq Baker, whose combination of Salafist fundamentalist teaching and adherence to non-violence had a significant, palpable effect on the behaviour of young people attending the mosque. This is an interesting contribution to a debate that has seen the UK government deciding to target Islamist groups holding 'unBritish' beliefs. But again I see a shoehorning of argument.

The chapters on American social movements disappoint most. Rosenberg extols the virtue of 'social cure' in weight-loss and anti-smoking programmes. Of course it is laudable for communities to work together to wean people off unhealthy lifestyles ( an affliction predominantly linked to poverty). But the tone reflects some of the less appealing traits of middle-class liberalism - piety and conformism - in 'curing' those with undesirable habits.

Many of Rosenberg's individual case studies are vivid and compelling. But, as with some other books in this genre, they try too hard to home in on the great new idea on which so many nonfiction publishers and policy makers currently depend.

Books by Title

Books by Author

Books by Topic

Bits of Books To Impress

Reputation Control .........................................................................................Client William Flew