Monthly Archives: May 2011

Peer pressure as social cure; Rosenberg’s “Join The Club”

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, MacArthur “genius grant” winner and New York Times magazine writer Tina Rosenberg has a new engaging book out called “Join The Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World” about how peer groups and their social ties can be used to cure social problems (“the social cure”).
She chronicles peer groups that spread information and promote positive lifestyles for group members; examples include how Florida fought teen smoking through teen groups taking on tobacco companies through the Truth Campaign; how students effectively protested against Serbian dictator Milosevic by using street theater in a group called Otpor; how LoveLife, a peer group in S. Africa, made AIDS awareness part of an aspirational lifestyle for teens; how the Chicago-based Willow Creek Community Church tries to change lives over small neighborhood-based Table groups; how a village-health worker group in Jamkhed, India is teaching Untouchables to have self-respect; how a peer-based group successfully taught calculus to poor Latino students (“Emerging Scholars“) through nightly study groups; and even how a community drop-in center in Brixton, England for Muslim teens might be effective in anti-terrorism efforts in the UK.
We applaud Ms. Rosenberg on her campaign although much of this “social cure” is old wine in new bottles. Sociologists have known for a long time how social settings can effect our choices for good or ill (see experiments of Asch or Milgram).  And many groups for a long time have thus used the power of peers to increase their effectiveness.
This is after all why many weight loss groups are formed (because the social bonds help people keep weight loss promises) or why Al-Anon uses 12-step group methods to overcome addictions; it is why micro-lending programs (like the Grameen Bank) are organized in groups (to increase repayment rates).
Basically these groups are using social capital.  Social Capital achieves its impact through five main paths: 1) providing increased access to information (like learning of potential project partners or job leads); 2) providing increased sense of meaning that individuals find from social engagement; 3) developing stronger group social norms (e.g., I do something that I might not on my own because I’m worried about my social standing in the group) that members feel pressure to conform to; 4) aiding reciprocity (e.g., I do something for someone else in the group now without expecting any immediate repayment because I expect that they, or someone else will do something for me down the road); and 5) the facilitation of collective action (just jargon for saying it makes it easier to do things that require collaboration and concerted response).  The power that Rosenberg finds in “peer pressure” in these various groups is primarily a function of these paths.
For example, people in a weight loss group stick to their weight loss regimen better because they care about others in the group and what they think and they worry that they will sacrifice these friendships or be embarrassed if they have to admit in the group what caloric foods they snacked on or how they missed their weight loss target.
What is perhaps new or unusual about the book is the acknowledgement of the role of marketing and Rosenberg’s belief that the message has to be positive.
First, marketing can be a powerful reinforcer of group ties and social norms and the desire to be in a group in the first place.  In the South African , although AIDS awareness was a primary goal of LoveLife, they didn’t wear this on their sleeve.  Countless billboards, public service announcements, games and concerts got teens convinced that being part of LoveLife was important.  Teens often exhibit flock tendencies, where the desire of doing something rises as the number of your peers are doing this as well.  LoveLife benefited from this, and AIDS awareness was a less visible but core part of the LoveLife message.  It’s unclear what the relative weights were on the attractive message and marketing, the friendships, and the social norms in what got people to join, stay with and achieve LoveLife goals.
A second one of Rosenberg’s messages is that the approach has to be positive and not based out of fear.  One has to make joining hip and fun rather than like castor oil or broccoli.   We argued something similar in the BetterTogether report.
As Rosenberg notes, “If you want to help someone change their behavior to accomplish a social goal, don’t give them new information and don’t use appeals based on fear. The most effective way is to provide them with a new peer group of people who they can identify with and who can hold them accountable. If you can get people to be active and to overcome their fear, fatalism and passivity, then you’ve gone a long way towards what you want to do.” Rosenberg acknowledges that she didn’t invent the power of groups, but she thinks they could be more widely used and enhanced with these positive lifestyle messages, maybe even for something like tackling global warming.  This approach has its merits, although it should be noted that there are many successful groups like “Mothers Against Drunk Driving” (MADD) that were not about forming a positive lifestyle “Mothers For Sober Drivers” but aligned in their opposition to an evil, so it’s not clear that Rosenberg’s “be positive” message helpfully describes what efforts succeed or fail.

Rosenberg believes there are limits to the “peer pressure” approach. It is time-consuming and she thinks it is less effective at persuasive education about societal facts and trends.

Rosenberg acknowledges that “peer pressure” has gotten its bad image because much of what teens use social pressure to enhance are negative goals: pressure others to buy Ugg boots or silly bandz, or bully an unpopular schoolmate, or pressure other teens to use drugs.  Although she stresses that outside groups (non-profits or government) could use this peer pressure for good, corporations or non-profits could just as well use it for negative ends, something that we openly admit in our writings and Bob (Putnam) has discussed in Bowling Alone.  And social groups might help promote goals about which there is societal disagreement:  teens might be urged to join small religious groups to promote”covenant marriage” (sticking with a marriage even when things get really bad) or to put pressure on teens not to get an abortion, or a corporation might use social networks to sell more products.

Measuring happiness comes close to home

Flickr photo by seq

We’ve reported earlier on the UK government’s recent decision to measure the happiness of its citizens.  The latest government to do so is neighboring Somerville, MA.  Somerville, which went by the nickname of “Slummerville” in the 1980s for cheap and affordable 3-decker housing and the highest residential concentration of any community in New England, has recently become more hip and gentrified thanks to the revitalization of places like Inman Square and Davis Square.

Somerville Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone is a recent graduate of the mid-career program Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) and a visionary who has worked with HKS on many other local government measurement projects (SomerStat). The NY Times quotes Curtatone as saying that the project was a “no-brainer” and he noted that “cities keep careful track of their finances, but a bond rating doesn’t tell us how people feel or why they want to raise a family here or relocate a business here.”

The city is collaborating with happiness expert Dan Gilbert at Harvard and ultimately hopes to use these data to see how things like the extension of the subway green line affect happiness or how Somerville’s happiness compares with neighboring towns.

The voluntary survey asks such questions like:

  • How happy do you feel right now? (1-10 scale)How satisfied are you with your life in general? (1-10 scale)
    In general, how similar are you to other people you know? (1-10 scale)
    When making decisions, are you more likely to seek advice or decide for yourself? (1-10 scale)
  • Taking everything into account, how satisfied are you with Somerville as a place to live? (1-10 scale)

The survey also asks residents to rate Somerville’s “beauty or physical setting” [likely fairly low for anyone who has spent time in Somerville], “availability of affordable housing”, quality of local public schools, and effectiveness of local police.

Researchers hope to correlate ratings of well-being, demographics, satisfaction with Somerville amenities, and proximity to various parts of Somerville to unpack what makes residents more or less satisfied.

As the NY Times observes: “Monitoring the citizenry’s happiness has been advocated by prominent psychologists and economists, but not without debate over how to do it and whether happiness is even the right thing for politicians to be promoting. The pursuit of happiness may be an inalienable right, but that is not the same as reporting blissful feelings on a questionnaire. “

See “How Happy Are You? A Census Wants to Know” (NY Times, 4/30/11 by John Tierney)

See Somerville’s voluntary “Wellbeing and Community Survey

See “Somerville, Mass., aims to boost happiness. Can it?” (CS Monitor, 4/4/11 by Mary Helen Miller)

Internet showing you what they think you want, not what you need (UPDATED)

Flickr photo by antoonsfoobar

I recently saw an interesting TED talk by Eli Pariser on the next wave of cyberbalkanization.  [Read his fascinating new book “The Filter Bubble” here.]

Background: Marshall Van Alstyne predicted 15 years earlier that users would self-segregate on the net and choose to get exposed to ever more narrow communities of interest.

We’re now onto the “The Daily Me” 2.0.  Some news sites originally let users click on their interests a user could limit his/her news to say sports and entertainment news.  Cass Sunstein and Nicholas Negroponte predicted that it would lead to stronger news blinders and expose us to less and less common information, what they called “The Daily Me”.

Well, it turns out that users actually choose to subject themselves to more diversity in opinions and networks on the net than people predicted.

But the latest onslaught, what Eli Pariser calls “The Filter Bubble”, is more invidious.  More and more user sites (Facebook, Google Search, Yahoo News, Huffington Post, the Washington Post) now automatically tailor your stream of results, facebook feed, and news feed based on your past clicks, where you are sitting, what type of computer you use, what web browser you use, etc.

Unlike in the past, this is not “opt in” cyberbalkanization but automatic.  And since it happens behind-the-scenes, you can’t know what you’re not seeing.  One’s search of Tunisia on Google might not even tell you about the political uprising if you haven’t expressed interest in politics in the past.  Eric Schmidt of Google said “It will be very hard for people to watch or consume something that has not in some sense been tailored for them.”

Pariser notes that we all have internal battles between our aspirational selves (who want greater diversity) and our current selves (who often want something easy to consume).  In most of our lives or Netflix queues we continually play out these battles with sometimes our aspirational selves winning out.  These filter bubbles edit out our aspirational selves when we need a mix of vegetables and dessert.  Pariser believes that the algorithmic gatekeepers need to show us things that are not only junk food but also things that are challenging, important and uncomfortable and present competing points of view. We need Internet ethics in the way that journalistic ethics were introduced in 1915 with transparency and a sense of civic responsibility and room for user control.

It’s an interesting talk and I clearly agree with Pariser that gatekeepers should be more transparent and allow user input to tweak our ratio of dessert to vegetables, to use his analogy.  But I think Pariser, in forecasting the degree of our Filter Bubble, misses out the fact that there are other sources of finding about news articles. Take Twitter retweets.  Even if my friends are not that diverse — and many of us will choose to “follow” people we don’t agree with — as long as one of the people I’m following has diverse views in his/her circle of followers and retweets their interesting posts, I get exposed to them.  Ditto with e-mail alerts by friends of interesting articles or social searches using Google.  We live in far more of a social world where information leads come from many other sources than Google searches or Yahoo News.  So let’s work on the automatic filters, but the sky is not falling just yet.

See “The Filter Bubble.” (Feb. 2011 TED talk)