Q&A: Using Peer Pressure to Change the World

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Virtually every day, a new study comes out suggesting that feeling close to others and having strong relationships boost health, happiness and longevity. From brain studies on the stress-relieving powers of the “love hormone” oxytocin to large long-term research projects that follow people’s daily lives to see how they impact health risks, research now overwhelmingly supports the idea that our social lives are critical to our mental and physical health.

In her new book, Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and New York Times Magazine contributing writer Tina Rosenberg examines how a greater understanding of our social nature is helping to influence people’s behavior, ranging from quitting smoking or increasing math studies to reducing risky behavior among HIV patients and overthrowing a government.

What made you want to look at the positive side of peer pressure?

I was working on story about Ivan Andric who is one of the founders of Otpor [a Serbian group that provoked the overthrow of the Milosevic dictatorship]. I was talking to a friend about the really unusual methods that Otpor used to get people in Serbia out of their houses and into the street. I realized that I had written this story before. It was really very similar to the South African government’s teen AIDS prevention program that I had written about in a magazine article.

You wouldn’t think they had that much in common. One of them is a government health program and the other is this group of underground students who are being totally persecuted and followed and jailed. But I realized that they [did]. The methods they used were the same. [The idea] was to get people to change their behavior — in one case to make healthier choices and give up risky sex, and the other case to get politically active.

And take more risks!

But they both got people to change their behavior by making it a club everybody wanted to join. And then I started thinking this is a really powerful method of getting people to change and what else can it be used for?

So what was Otpor’s secret? I’ve read that some of the Otpor activists actually trained the activists in Egypt…

They do a bunch of things that are really different from anything I’ve ever seen before. One of those is that they take nonviolence planning as seriously as planning a military campaign. They do not subscribe to this oh-it-will-happen-by-itself theory of “Let’s just call a revolution and see if everybody comes out.” They really plan everything and they don’t do big demonstrations; they do tiny little actions to grow their movement gradually. They’re very, very cautious and organized — that part I think is really key.

But the other thing that’s really key is that they try and do the complete opposite of what traditional politics is. I mean, their patron saint is Monty Python. They make it fun, they make it cool. They make it witty and irreverent and insolent and rude, so young people — but not just young people — want to join and want to come out. They want to wear this great T shirt and have this great background music that’s playing and just be daring.

How did they get people to stand up to a dictator who could throw them in prison or worse?

They used an extremely creative approach to fear. They knew that people were going to get arrested and they knew that this was going to be a big problem for them because they needed to get large numbers to get to the point where they could eventually overthrow Milosevic.

They knew that they had to get people to feel that the risks they were taking were manageable. But they realized after a while that the arrests were not that awful. You would be arrested, you would spend five or 10 hours in a police station. It would be very rare that they would do more than beat you up and very rare that they would hold you overnight.

So Otpor decided that they could really use this. They invented something called “Plan B,” which was a way to take advantage of arrests. They would hold some sort of demonstration or street theater, and one person’s job was to hang back and not get arrested. After the police carted off everybody, she would then call headquarters and say, “Seventeen people arrested, taken to this police station.”

And then headquarters would jump into action. They would assemble this crowd outside — of opposition journalists, Otpor’s lawyers, members, friends and family — and people would just camp out and play soccer or volleyball or sing songs, and they would wait until the person inside got released.

The people inside could often hear this and they knew they weren’t alone and when you got released you would emerge into this: photographers, journalists, cheering people. You’d go out and have a beer and the next day your picture would be in the paper and you’d be on opposition TV and you were a hero.

And you’d go back to high school the next day and all the girls would want your phone number and it was just great. It got to the point where guys would compete to see who could get arrested the most.

So they were able to take fear and police repression and turn it into a positive. They offered people a way to be heroic in their own eyes and in the eyes of their friends, and I think that was hugely powerful.

How does the power of the group contribute to that kind of altruism? You think about it also in cases like in Japan, where nuclear workers are risking so much to spare others.

I’ve been thinking about the workers in the nuclear reactor and I think the comparison is that they’re like soldiers in a foxhole. How do you get a soldier, a kid who doesn’t necessarily share the aims of the general or the war, who may even think, “This is not my war. I got drafted so here I am,” how do you get him to risk his life? How do you get him to come out of his place of safety and charge up Hamburger Hill?

Well, they do it for their buddies. They do it because they don’t want their buddies to think of them as cowardly. They’re supporting their buddies and they’re there with their buddies; I don’t have any idea what’s going through the mind of a nuclear reactor operator in Japan where the culture is much more group-oriented, but that’s probably what it is.

But if you have an in-group, you also have to have an out-group. One of the most interesting things about the successful antismoking campaign you write about is that it targeted the tobacco companies as making smokers into suckers — not cool people. It wasn’t the risk of bad health that got kids not to smoke. It was the idea that they should rebel against evil and manipulative corporations.

I don’t think that’s always the case, [that it has to be rebellious to work]. It’s not always coolness that’s the mechanism here. LoveLife [an AIDS-prevention campaign in South Africa that turned itself into an “aspirational lifestyle brand” to promote safe sex] wasn’t really rebelling against anything. It was just giving people a really fun, positive place to hang out where they had a reason to think of themselves as people with a future and so they would make different choices.

One of the biggest problems in making change is getting people motivated, getting them to understand that they can make a difference and they aren’t the only one who wants change.

Especially under dictatorship, the big challenge of overthrowing a dictator is getting people politically active, penetrating the part of the brain that says, “It’s too dangerous. There’s no point anyway. It’s not going to work. There’s nothing better. We’re doomed, so I’m just going to be passive.” If you can crack that, you have got 80% of the way I think to overthrowing a dictatorship.

But how do you mobilize people to change without something as extreme as having to challenge a dictator?

I try to grapple in the last chapter with: How do you apply the method of mobilizing people to other ends that are not necessarily the dire circumstances that Otpor was in? That is harder in a democracy. The issue isn’t as salient for people.

It’s also harder because we’re a middle class society and everyone’s very busy with their own lives and we don’t live in groups in the sense that people in villages do. But there are ways to use these techniques to mobilize.

You write about how the Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois tried to help people get more connected. Some of its members talked about this longing for community. Do you think that feeling is becoming more common?

I think so. At first I wondered whether it was just because I was looking for it that I saw it, but there is evidence that this is happening. Young people today are much more interested in socially meaningful work and spending time with friends and family and creativity. You look at real estate patterns and people are willing to pay more now to live in places that have other people around, that have street life and neighborhoods and walkability.

How did Willow Creek’s small groups work to create a sense of community?

Well, proximity helps. One of the keys to being able to have more community is to make it easy. So you don’t have to get in the car to drive a long way; you don’t have to take the subway across town; you can do things with people who are already around you. The key for the [groups at] Willow Creek was that they all lived pretty much right next to each other. You make it easy by doing that. So you don’t have to get a babysitter; you can bring your kids along. You give people ways to take the first step, to get their foot in the door. That’s very important because we don’t have a lot of time in our lives. One of the keys to this movement is to eliminate things in your life that are time-suckers like a long commute.

Why is there so much fear around connectedness? Some of the people in that group were afraid that other people would become busybodies and that they’d almost get too close for comfort.

I think there’s still a lot of resistance to the idea of solving problems in groups. Not with the idea of addiction anymore — I think those groups [like 12-step programs] have now become the go-to way of dealing with it — but with other problems [the resistance is still there]. America is still a very individualist society compared to most other places. We’ve structured a middle class suburban life that increases that sense of alienation. Your kids don’t play in a communal park — they go to the swing set in your backyard. But I think people are realizing that it’s not healthy to live that way, that we’d be happier if we were more connected.

See more of Healthland’s ‘Mind Reading’ series.