Peer Pressure and Role Modeling

When you’re trying to understand people as a whole, it’s important to understand that on average we will not tell you what we really think or feel.  Sometimes we won’t tell you because we don’t trust you, or for whatever reason we just don’t think it’s any of your danged business.  I’m like that.  But the most interesting thing about this is that we will often not tell you what we really feel because we don’t actually know ourselves.

It’s either that or the alternative is that we’re just a bunch of liars.

Either way, to determine what we really feel, you have to compare what we say with what we actually do.  Actions, it seems, generally do speak louder than words.

For example, here’s a podcast at Freakonomics (the hidden side of everything) focused on the herd mentality–that being peer pressure and how it reflects in the things we do.  The whole thing is 35 minutes long, which is a pretty stiff investment for folks these days, but it is interesting and worth it if you’re into trying to understand social dynamics.

The part I want to draw your attention to today is 8-13 minutes into it, where the podcast outlines an experiment ran by Robert Cialdini, a leader in the field of “influence” (whatever that is, right?).  He wanted to explore what messages would cause families to change the way they use energy.  So he and his team distributed four different messages to four separate groups.  Those messages were:

  • Save your own money
  • Save the environment’s resources
  • Do this for future generations
  • Your neighbors are taking steps to make the environment better

The only message that actually made a difference in energy usage was the last one.  Of course.  Peer pressure works.  Oddly.  I say oddly, because when the same population was surveyed to determine what would cause them to reduce energy usage the result was a very strong message, and that message was: I won’t do a damned thing just because my neighbor do it.  In other words, people said “I will be my own person,” despite the fact that the data reveals that the ONLY thing that made a difference in behavior was exactly the opposite–what the person’s neighbors think.

This is fascinating.  I mean, we as a society almost always fight problems by highlighting how bad people are as a whole.  We advertise the prevalence of drunk driving, or teenage pregnancy, or smoking, or whatever … so people will get worried and take action.  We do that for all the right reasons.  We want people to stop doing these things for their own good as well as for the good of society as a whole.  But we don’t take into account that what we’re really doing is validating poor behavior, subconsciously telling people it’s okay to do these things because everyone else is.   The data says that by making our arguments in this fashion, we actually undercut our objectives.  As I said, the podcast as a whole is interesting.  Listen to it on your way home today, or at lunch, or whatever.

I love to think about why people do things.  In this case, I assume some people put forward “incorrect” negative examples merely because they don’t realize what they are doing.  They don’t know the behavioral science of it.  But some people know the power of peer pressure and the herd mentality, and still drive things this way.  Why?  Why, do we do this even when we know it’s the least effective thing to do (and in fact can even result in negative results, as outlined in the theft example inside the podcast)?  Is it that people find something of inherent value in holding strongly to a more militant message, even when it’s not the best one to take to solve the actual problem.  Could it be that they really just want to be seen as “right” (and hence the others are “wrong”) rather than actually make a difference?  Do we really just want to win the affection of like-minded folks?

Anyway …

So, if taking a hardline aggressive stance is a detriment to reaching our objectives, how should we go forward properly in order to harvest the power of peer pressure?  How do we make these arguments in ways that would make peer pressure work for us in a more positive fashion?  The truth is I have no real idea.  I’m just a wonky engineer/IT/Business/HR guy.  I do have somewhat studied opinions tempered by the fires of some experience, but no firm answers.

Here’s what I think would work, though–an example that makes logical sense, anyway.

I’ll use healthy dieting and exercise as an example, just picking one at semi-random.

Among today’s messages to the public are “people can’t afford to eat well” and “no one has the time to exercise much.”  And there is truth to those.  It is getting a little harder for people to do these things.  The data says it.  But these are also behavioral in nature, and these two messages enable people to fall back and do things that are not helpful to the situation.  Everyone else is eating crap and slacking off, after all.  Why not me?  I want to be like the cool kids, after all.

So how do we sell ideas that change that mindest?

How about every time someone complains about food or exercise, someone gently agree how things are, but then say gently that despite modern day difficulties:

The first time people hear this they will, of course, ignore it.  But what if they heard this every time they complained?  What if they saw it ten, twenty, thirty times a day on billboards or text messages, or TV ads, or …

I’m fully aware I’m cherry picking data to make my point–but that in itself actually is the point.  We chose to present data to manipulate opinion and behavior all the time.  In this case, I’m ignoring that the data is getting worse and instead trying to develop a truthful statement to lead people to a more positive model, one that actually works to fix the problem.  This pair of messages is merely a way of telling a true story that drives people in a positive way.

Isn’t that what leadership really is, after all?  Anyone can run around screaming that the sky is falling, right?  And anyone can tell someone else they’re an idiot.  But does that ever seem to really make a difference?  Has anyone had his or her mind changed by a caustic post on a website or a jingoistic splash on a Facebook page?  Have you?  Probably not.

So I suggest this.  Why not actually try to make a difference?  Pick your topic of the week–something big like energy usage, or political polarity or something more close to home like eating, or exercise, or your work environment, or doing things well, or merely how you treat others.  When you see cases of people doing the wrong things, try to ignore them (unless, of course, it’s a true safety issue).  Look, instead, for examples of people doing great things, and work to highlight those.

Try it for a week, and if it makes you feel even just a little better once during that week, try it again the next week and the next.  They say it takes thirty days to convert a practice to a habit.  So, you never know what might happen.    Heck, someone you think is important to you might actually begin considering you a role model.

Think about that.

Isn’t role-modeling really just a specific form of peer pressure?

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  1. Interesting stuff, Ron — the part about eating healthy is very interesting, because I have been trying to do just that. I’ve been fairly successful, but in order to do so, I’ve had to go AGAINST copious amounts of peer pressure, primarily at work. I used to do lunch out every day with the same group of friends, but I started bringing my own lunch over the winter to do a better job of controlling my food intake (hint: Lunch out can REALLY add to your food intake, given typical restaurant quantities).

    I later discovered that eating in the cafeteria (not a popular thing to do at work, unfortunately) offers a lot of very healthy choices — I had grilled salmon, steamed broccoli and cauliflower for lunch today, but smaller portions than your typical “lunch out.”

    It’s hard bucking that peer pressure trend at first, but as you observed, habits die hard, but once I got over the “habit” hump, the peer pressure has much less of a grip on me . . . and I’m about 20 lbs lighter now than I was last fall, just through eating better. Next up: Integrating more exercise into my peer pressure-busting habits. 😉

  2. Congrats on the change, JPB. I agree on the lunch thing. Lisa takes her lunch every day, and I do three days out of five. I tend to eat at a deli at least once a week–basically healthy. I loosely track the calories I eat and generally shot to keep it down in the range of my base metabolism (1900-2000 calories, with the occasional ice cream binge 🙂 ).

    Integrate exercise in easy steps. Maybe start with a thirty-minute walk with the girls. That’s probably 2500 steps and 100 calories a day. After a month of that, I suspect you’ll just find it grows because you’re just in better fitness.

  3. I do a 25-minute “stair route” at work a couple of times per week already — I have access to four 5-story staircases in the two buildings that I work in (they’re both connected) and long runs of hallway in-between, so it makes for a very nice “fitness route” during the middle of the workday without the need to switch into gym cloghes. We also try to walk the dog (or dogs) at least a couple of times per week when the weather permits, and we usually do a 1.5 mile route through the neighborhood, so I do a fair job of remaining in decent cardio shape, at least. I’ve been incorporating some light weightlifting at home a couple of times a week, plus some push-ups and “planking” (which is WAY better than sit-ups for the abs!), so I’m probably not as bad off as I think, but sometimes I miss those 3-day-per week workouts that I can’t seem to find time for anymore.

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