In praise of peer pressure
How a new form of marketing, using the appeal of fitting in, may persuade people to drink less--and turn down their thermostats
Peer pressure gets bad press, but in some cases more of it might make the world a better place.
In California, psychologists recently found that they could get people to conserve electricity with a simple notice, delivered to their doorstep, telling them how their consumption compared with the neighborhood average. In the weeks that followed, homeowners who were consuming more electricity than their neighbors cut back -- presumably because they were embarrassed to be out of step with the herd.
But there was a catch: Homeowners who were using less electricity than the average felt the nudge of peer pressure, too. They took the new information as a license to leave a few more lights on over the next few weeks. The solution? A smiley-face. When the psychologists gave the good energy stewards a simple, symbolic pat on the back next to the hard data, they kept up their good behavior.
The research, reported in next month's issue of Psychological Science, reflects growing interest in what's known as "social-norms marketing" -- attempting to change behavior by telling people what their peers do. The basic concept is some two decades old, but psychologists have been intensifying efforts to find more effective ways of deploying it. And now, with a growing recognition of the limits of browbeating, a wide range of groups -- from climate-change activists to college deans trying to keep students from drinking themselves to oblivion -- have been making peer pressure their ally.
"The norm is like a magnet," says Robert Cialdini, a professor at Arizona State University who is an author of the new study. "What's appropriate to do, in most people's minds, is what other people like them do."
More broadly, the social-norms approach is part of a general movement to make productive use of insights into the quirks of the human psyche. For example, psychologists have found that presenting people with a wide range of choices (about almost anything) can frustrate and immobilize them, so that they end up making no choice at all, or a bad choice. Supermarket managers and policy experts designing health plans have taken note.
Psychologists studying ways to reduce drinking on campuses were among the first to embrace the social-norms approach. In 1986, Wesley Perkins, a sociologist at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Alan Berkowitz, now an independent consultant, published a paper showing students on that campus significantly overestimated how much their peers drank and also overestimated social approval of binge drinking -- misconceptions that, the authors said, could themselves be encouraging higher drinking levels, given peer pressure's potency. Dozens of papers followed.
In one published two years ago in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol, involving a survey of 130 campuses, Perkins and two coauthors found that nearly three-quarters of students overestimated the amount of heavy drinking around them. At Hobart and William Smith, Perkins says that abusive drinking, by several measures, dropped by more than a third from 1995 to 2000, after the campus made a concerted effort to bring students' knowledge about their peers' drinking in line with reality. And contrary to the implications of the electricity study, Perkins and other alcohol researchers report no evidence that low-level drinkers increase their consumption when they learn the true campus norms.
Cialdini's work tends to focus on the environment. In a paper from 2003, he identified a problem with signs in the Petrified Forest National Park, in Arizona, intended to discourage the theft of ancient, irreplaceable wood. The signs sternly warned that America's "heritage" was being "vandalized" by "theft losses of petrified wood of 14 tons a year."
That sent the message that pocketing souvenirs was the norm for tourists, Cialdini argues. In an on-site experiment, he and his coauthors demonstrated that by making use of new signs that stressed how few people removed items from the park, and that symbolically isolating those who do (on the sign, thieving stick figures had red slashes through them), the park could cut vandalism substantially.
In another experiment, Cialdini has shown that hotels will have more success encouraging their clients to re-use towels if they alter the wording of their appeals. "Join your fellow guests in helping to save the environment: A majority of our guests use their towels more than once" works better than any other approach. Cialdini recently visited 10 Downing Street to offer advice to Tony Blair's aides on crafting sound environmental messages.
In Minnesota, a study by the Department of Revenue found that informing taxpayers that most people don't cheat on their taxes improved tax compliance more than stressing the link between taxes and popular public programs.
A few studies, however, have cast doubt on the effectiveness of social-norms campaigns. In 2003, Henry Wechsler, then the head of the College Alcohol Study at the Harvard School of Public Health, roiled the social-norms field when he published a paper concluding that students at colleges that used social-norms campaigns drank as much as students at other colleges. Perkins and other advocates of the social-norms approach have attacked that study on various grounds. But Wechsler, who retired in January, still argues that his adversaries are overselling their approach.
So the field is still in flux: The effects of peer pressure remain hard to measure, and hard to manipulate -- yet the tug of the herd mindset is everywhere. Coincidentally, I recently came across a survey that found that 80 percent of adult males in the United States have six or fewer drinks in a week. I was taken aback, assuming the average was higher. No Kingsley Amis, consumption-wise, I nevertheless skipped wine with dinner a few times that week.
Later that same week, I read in an economics journal that freelance businessmen -- I'm a freelancer -- report only about 60 percent of their income, according to IRS estimates. Yet I'm scrupulous to the penny. Do I want to remain abnormal? Does anyone? I filed for an extension, so I've got some time to think about it.
Christopher Shea's column appears biweekly in Ideas. E-mail email@example.com.