Peer Pressure Can Solve the World's Problems

Writer Tina Rosenberg in her home in New York City. Christopher Anderson / Magnum for Newsweek

We are such creatures of habit that often nothing will sway us from a bad or even a self-destructive one. Or, as Tina Rosenberg says in her new book, Join the Club, "No amount of information can budge us when we refuse to be budged. The catalog of justifications for destructive behaviors is a tribute to human ingenuity." Stodgy public-health campaigns with proscriptive logos ("Say no to drugs," for example) don't work. Instead, what worked in South Africa was a campaign modeled on the relaunch of the soft drink Sprite. Sprite brought its brand into the communities: it made sure its name was associated with basketball, fun activities, and concerts. By recruiting cool kids to talk up these exciting experiences in Internet chat rooms, it magnified this effect. The AIDS-prevention program loveLife, which eventually emerged based on the Sprite model, became one of the top 10 brands in the country. It had catchy billboards, magazines, and websites, all filled with fashion advice, gossip, and, yes, information about AIDS. LoveLife succeeded in reducing HIV transmission in teens, an example of how the "social cure"—as Rosenberg labels this phenomenon—can solve a behavioral issue.

In her previous book, The Haunted Land: Facing Europe's Ghosts After Communism (which won her the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award), Rosenberg took on the moral question of who is guilty and who is qualified to make that judgment when a repressive government crumbles. That book and the one that preceded it revealed a writer willing to take on difficult subjects. Join the Club is every bit as sweepingly ambitious, and this time her subject is peer pressure, just not the kind your mother warned you about. In fact, as with the work of loveLife, it is the opposite, the phenomenon of peer pressure as an agent of positive change.

Flunking calculus in college would seem less amenable to a social cure. But, Rosenberg writes, struggling with calculus can have "a hidden behavioral component, one that can be altered through the creative application of peer pressure." At the University of California, Berkeley, during the '70s, up to 60 percent of black and Latino students who completed first-term calculus got D's or F's despite excelling in calculus in high school. Indeed, the higher their SAT score, the more likely they were to struggle with calculus. In comparing the failing group with the ethnic Chinese students who tended to excel in calculus, the difference appeared to be that the Chinese tended to gather in the evenings to study in a group. "This seemingly mundane difference in study habits turned out to be of momentous consequence," writes Rosenberg.

Berkeley created an Emerging Scholars program in which students worked in groups of three or four, learning from each other, with a teaching assistant who would not give them the answers but make the students work out the solutions themselves and share their understanding with each other. Emerging Scholars has had stunning success and has been replicated in many other universities. Still, such programs require a dedicated faculty member, a supportive administration, and time, and, as a result, few schools have taken up this relatively simple solution to a widespread problem.

Rosenberg's case studies are as different as they are fascinating. The huge Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago, for example, found that traditional Bible-study groups formed around shared interests (mothers, singles, or even motorcycles) were neither successful nor satisfying. What evolved then was the notion of "proximity is community": groups that formed around immediate neighbors "doing life together" might lead to a Christ-like life. Participants in these "table groups" found that "their individual change led them outward and produced community," Rosenberg says. "What brings people closer to God is not any leap in self-understanding, mastery of scripture, or increase in virtue," but rather it is working to help others; it is the "dipping of a brush in blue paint and its careful application to the corner of a house."

In using other examples, such as that of Otpor in Serbia (a youth group that helped oust Slobodan Milosevic), or the remarkable Aroles (a husband-and-wife doctor team in rural India who have transformed and empowered "untouchable" women), Rosenberg shows how peer pressure can work dramatically but also how complex the effort can be, and how easily it can fail, be sabotaged, or lose its early momentum.

Ultimately, the stories in Join the Club are meant to show "how the social cure works" based on the stories of entrepreneurs who have helped write the book for this powerful tool. For the reader, the ideas in Join the Club are exciting, and they immediately make one consider professional and personal obstacles in one's own life that might be amenable to a "join the club" solution. It is an empowering idea. As Rosenberg says, "We are all good boys at risk of the bad crowd. Peer pressure is a mighty and terrible force—so powerful that, for the vast majority of people, the best antidote to it is more peer pressure." The salvation or the lifeline that comes can take many forms, but, to use Rosenberg's words as she concludes a brilliant book that fully realizes its ambition, "What matters is that at the other end, someone's hand is there."

Verghese is a professor at Stanford University School of Medicine and the author of Cutting for Stone.