Kai Ryssdal: The demonstrations in the Middle East started in part with young people pushing each other to get out into the streets and call for reforms. That’s just one example of what Tina Rosenberg calls “the social cure” — peer pressure as a force for good. It’s also the theme of her new book, it’s called “Join The Club.”
Tina Rosenberg, good to talk to you.
Tina Rosenberg: Thanks Kai, it’s nice to be here.
Ryssdal: So I hate to take issue with an author right off the bat, but here’s the thing: I’ve got four little kids, and whenever we talk about peer pressure, it’s in the negative sense. You know, ‘Don’t do something just because all your buddies are doing it.’ But you basically say that in the right circumstances, and in the right conditions — and with grown-ups, more important — peer pressure can really be a good thing.
Rosenberg: I have three kids, and I have the same experience. But we all know how powerful peer pressure can be, and how afraid grown-ups are of peer pressure applied to our children. But we can use this very powerful tool for good ends as well as for bad ends.
Ryssdal: Explain that a little bit. How did you come to this realization?
Rosenberg: I came to the realization because I was working on a story about a group of students in Serbia, who organized a movement that eventually was key in the overthrow of Slobodan Miloševic, and the techniques they were using were identical to ones that I had seen in a South African government teen AIDS prevention program. I started to think about, what is it that these two effective programs, which are so different in so many ways, have in common? And the answer was: they try and get people to change their behavior, not by giving them new information about how you get AIDS or how bad Miloševic is, and not by appealing to fear, but by giving them a new peer group to identify with, by changing their behavior into a really cool and heroic thing to do.
Ryssdal: Explain the nuts and bolts of it for me. This group that you saw in South Africa, it was a result of a campaign for Sprite, right?
Rosenberg: It was modeled on a kind of advertising that Sprite had done, which is called experiential marketing, where you actually try and give people an experience. And loveLife, as the program is known, is doing the same things. They have after-school clubs and they have school activities, and they actually very rarely talk about AIDS. They decided that the reason that so many South African teenagers had very high risks in their behavior was because they felt alienated, they felt they had no future to live for, so why not just go ahead and live it up now? And by connecting them to other people, by having them be a member of this close group, and by giving them a sense of a more positive future, and by using peers who had been in the same situation and were telling them, ‘Here’s what I was then and here’s what I am now, and you too can change,’ they found that this was very effective.
Ryssdal: Let me pick up on that point, though, about experiential marketing. What’s the difference between concerted and coherent peer pressure — well-organized — and a good marketing campaign?
Rosenberg: Not much, actually. People who work in social change, especially public health professionals, need to learn from business. Because they have been spending years doing things that are not very effective.
Ryssdal: Here’s another one, not on health care at all, but sort of ripped from the headlines: The revolutions in the Middle East. The people in Tahrir Square giving each other the courage to do what they did.
Rosenberg: There’s an interesting connection between the revolution in Egypt and the fall of Miloševic, because this group of young Serbians called Otpora, or “resistance,” they started to train others. So now they have an organization that goes around the world, training dissidents and democracy activists. And among the groups they trained was the April 6th Movement in Egypt. And a lot of the tactics you saw in Tahrir Square came directly from the Serbians.
Ryssdal: Tina Rosenberg, her most recent book is called “Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World.” Tina, thanks a lot.
Rosenberg: Thank you.
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