Think the government should manipulate us? Join the club.

Tina Rosenberg seems to want to stop us having fun - like smoking, drinking and having sex - and thinks getting other people to gang up on us is just the way to do it.

Patrick Hayes

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Peer pressure has been much maligned. Kids are warned against it at school and policymakers emphasise it can lead to us developing nasty habits of wanting to ‘keep up with the Joneses’. So a book emphasising the transformative aspects of human beings putting pressure upon one another should be welcome. But there is nothing remotely positive about author Tina Rosenberg’s instrumental view of peer pressure as a behaviour modification tool to manipulate irrational humans into making the ‘right choices’.

There are people who have a low view of humans as rational actors. And then there is Tina Rosenberg. ‘We human beings’, the Pulitzer Prize winner says in her latest book Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World, ‘are disturbingly unreasonable creatures, helpless to act in our own interests’. Bastardising Plato’s allegory of the cave in The Republic, she asserts many of us are ‘destined to see only shadows on a wall and think it is a reality’.

Throughout her work, it becomes clear we are riddled with ‘fallibilities’ and ‘foibles’, with our irrationalities so strong they can ‘outweigh maternal love’ and lead us to reverting ‘emotionally to a less mature level of development, as a child may suddenly resume bedwetting to greet the arrival of a new baby in the house’.

And there’s nowt so queer as smokers. These bizarre creatures do something ‘startling’. They ‘make a choice to perform an act that is likely to cause you serious illness and very possible a premature death. This fact is intolerable. So the mind does tricks to make it more tolerable.’

Rosenberg finds many things intolerable. Think of pretty much anything that could resemble fun and it’s a safe bet that she thinks it shouldn’t be tolerated. Indeed it can appear she’s basically declared war against fun. As she puts it: ‘[T]he challenge of selling behavioural change is to get people to give up their fun in exchange for their long-term well-being. No more free sex, drinking, crime, environmentally destructive gas-guzzling cars, big spending…’

How can we be weaned off fun? Many people have tried and failed, apparently, giving the idea of behaviour change a ‘bad reputation’. ‘Time after time, new campaigns are announced to get people to do the things they know they should’, says Rosenberg, ‘the conventional wisdom is bleak: people don’t change’. The reason why? Simply because just providing information about what’s good for people, when they act irrationally, is fruitless. Reason is futile.

Such an approach doesn’t work as we are extremely influenced by three powerful forces: our genes, the profit motive and – importantly – social pressures. According to Rosenberg, you see, we are ‘herd animals’ in essence: ‘walking off a cliff if that’s what others do, desperate to follow the rules by which our neighbours live, to win their acceptance and respect’.

But Rosenberg isn’t one to try to give up on trying to modify our behaviour easily. Indeed the fact that we are ultimately reducible to flocks of sheep gives her a bright idea about how we can be shepherded to act in our own interests. While the idea of peer pressure has long been identified as a negative force, she wonders ‘can a new, prosocial peer group turn round someone who is antisocial? It seems that it should work. We have anecdotal evidence that it works but we don’t really know’.

Despite this admission, Rosenberg doesn’t hesitate to suggest this approach could be a panacea to many of the problems facing society – even, astoundingly, in combating global terrorism. She even gives it a sinister-sounding label, the ‘social cure’. And her book is swollen with lengthy anecdotes – albeit only from a handful of tenuously linked case studies – as to how this social cure works in practice.

This vague concept of a social cure usually requires generating – often fabricating – a social group that are against the social ill that she wishes to cure, so people can ‘decide’ between peer pressures. Take smoking, for example. Teenagers, in Rosenberg’s eyes, are wholly susceptible to the advertising of evil tobacco companies. Teens only smoke ‘because tobacco companies want them to’.

She identifies the social-cure solution to this in the largely state-funded US initiative called Rage Against the Haze. This project attempts to make anti-smoking cool by promoting a social movement against tobacco companies. By having trendy bands play at Rage concerts, allowing them to play video games on giant plasma screens and getting kids to hand out fliers about the lies and manipulation of tobacco companies, they become a manipulating force for good instead. Without a hint of irony, she claims: ‘They provide a new peer group of fellow anti-tobacco revolutionaries, gathering teenagers to tell the tobacco industry that teens are tired of being manipulated.’

There are numerous other examples, including the Otpur movement in Serbia which – in a nutshell – she celebrates for attracting people because it was ‘cool’ rather than because they had convincing pro-democracy arguments. The thing they all have in common is this: ‘They get people to join the demonstration or confront their inner demons or avoid risky sex or trespass on long-held concepts of proper behaviour not by lecturing them about that long-term interest or, indeed, talking about anything rational at all. Instead, they aim at what people want now: to belong, to be part of the crowd, to be loved and respected.’

Rosenberg acknowledges that there are practical problems with her thesis. Primarily, the fact that getting normal people to give up their fun and be ‘lured’ into these ‘pro-social’ movements is going to be a tough gig. As she puts it, ‘getting people to show up is most of the battle… There is always a small group of the faithful – committed anti-smokers, kids who would never think of having unprotected sex. They will be first in line for your meeting, but they are not the ones at risk.’

If sufficient lessons are learnt from the advertising industry, however, she thinks that luring the ‘at risk’ (ie, most of us) into these groups is possible. But other issues abound. Americans, damn them, are just too caught up in the myth that they are ‘self-made men’ and value their private lives too much. She quotes an enlightened member of one of the ‘pro-social’ groups she highlights as identifying that, ‘the challenge… is fighting to show people’s true brokenness’. But as these broken people begin to feel increasingly lonely in an atomised society, Rosenberg has hope that the social cure – ‘complete with burdensome meetings and loss of privacy’ – might become palatable as a way of solving people’s personal problems.

Rosenberg’s conclusions are vague. It’s not obvious how peer groups can be formed that will put the ‘right’ kind of pressure on people. Especially, as she puts it, ‘we are all good boys at risk of the bad crowd. Peer pressure is a mighty and terrible force.’ It’s far from clear who decides what are the ‘good’ and what are the ‘bad’ crowds. She hints that state intervention is necessary, claiming ‘a change in governmental policy may only be part of what’s needed’, but doesn’t really elaborate. However it seems the ideal world through Rosenberg-tinted lenses is one where we are forced or cajoled into filling our social calendar with Alcoholics Anonymous-style circle-time sessions where people talk about their cravings for cigarettes, fast cars, junk food, wild sex and anything else that’s fun with a group of ‘enlightened’ individuals who have learnt such things aren’t in the interests of their ‘long-term well-being’.

Fortunately, while Rosenberg’s publishers bill her work as in the style of Nudge and The Spirit Level, both of which are bibles of sorts in some government circles, it’s unlikely Join the Club will join that club. It’s too woolly, lacking in any concrete conclusions and full of flabby anecdotes rather than anything that can be passed off as ‘science’ or ‘evidence-based’. That does not mean, however, that the work – which chimes with many contemporary prejudices among the political elite – isn’t going to be influential.

Peer pressure actually has a lot going for it. Being put under pressure by friends and colleagues can be extremely influential in developing ideas, in establishing a sense of what’s good and what’s bad. Such pressure imposed through informal exchanges has a remarkable amount of creative potential. Indeed it’s for this reason that it has often been feared or seen to be a malign influence, as it leaves decision making in the informal sphere, largely away from the influence of the state or ‘experts’.

However Rosenberg’s bright idea of wielding peer pressure to herd irrational humans into making the ‘right’ decisions in the name of their own well-being is one that deserves to be much maligned from the very outset.

Patrick Hayes is a reporter for spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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