The Politics and Power of Peer Pressure

Tina Rosenberg talks about her book Join the Club.

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In October 1998, a group of Belgrade University students met in a café with a desire to bring down Yugoslavia's President Slobodan Milosevic. To do this, they needed to motivate Serbs to take to the streets in protest. The students, who named their movement Otpor, meaning resistance, made themselves "the coolest club that anyone could belong to," with music, pranks, theater, and T-shirts, says Tina Rosenberg, who describes the power of human connections in her new book, clubJoin the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World. Two years and over 70,000 members later, Otpor helped topple Milosevic. Rosenberg, a New York Times columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner for her book about Eastern Europe after the fall of communism, recently spoke with U.S. News about how Otpor inspired the Egyptian uprising and how peer pressure can bring down healthcare costs. Excerpts:

You describe peer pressure as a "social cure." Explain.

It's the way of getting people to change their behavior and bring about not only behavioral change but often wider social change—not by giving them new information and not by appealing to fear, but by giving them a new peer group that they can identify with.

How permanent is it?

The classic version of the social cure is Alcoholics Anonymous. You go to meet with other people who have the same goal and who are trying to stick to the same plan as you, and you support each other and you call each other out when you slip. For some people, AA works really well and it works for a lifetime. And for some people it doesn't work.

Who or what comprises "the club"?

Whatever goal you have, one of the best ways to be able to achieve that goal is to enlist the help of somebody else or a couple other people who want to do the same thing, and you form your own little group. On the other hand, [there] is the fall of Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia. [Otpor] provided the ground troops for what turned into a hugely successful movement and Milosevic fell. The techniques they used were social cure techniques: [Serbs] don't need information; they know Milosevic is a bad dictator. What we need to do is motivate them.

Did this kind of peer pressure play a role in the Middle East uprisings?

The Otpor folks trained the Egyptians. They have a group called CANVAS, which trains democracy movements from around the world, and among the people who came to Belgrade for training were members of the April 6 movement in Egypt. The tactics were very similar.

[Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the Middle East unrest.]

Do you see examples of this domestically?

A very important potential application of peer pressure in America is to bring down healthcare costs. A lot of the expense of healthcare in this country and a lot of unnecessary sickness and death come because people don't adhere to their treatment plans. There have been several experiments on a small scale using peers to help people stick to their treatment plans and they have worked, brought down healthcare costs, and helped some of the most difficult healthcare patients to become much healthier, which means they've gone to the hospital less.

How does peer pressure work as an empowering force for change?

There's a program in rural India that trains the most downtrodden women to become village doctors. These are women who are members of the Dalit or "untouchable" caste who don't look anyone in the eye, who have been absolutely convinced that they are completely worthless. This group called Jamkhed decided to train these women. The problem wasn't giving them skills; it was giving them confidence.

How can this effort to empower fail?

You have to not assume that success will keep itself going. You have to actually plan for how you can finance yourself and make the right amount of friends. The first really successful teen antismoking program . . . worked because instead of giving teens information, the people who designed the program said, "What is a cigarette? It's a delivery system for rebellion. How can we give them that rebellion?" So they invented ways for kids to rebel against the tobacco companies. They used a series of really great TV ads showing kids making prank calls and driving to the Marlboro headquarters asking to see the Marlboro man, who had just died of lung cancer. It allowed kids to think of themselves as rebels in a healthy way. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on healthcare.]