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Everybody Else Is Doing It

June 2, 2009

Little kids frustrate their parents with it. Corrupt businessman use it to deflect blame. Lemmings will even plunge to their virtual deaths because of it. “Everybody else is doing it” is one of the most powerful rationalizations we have for behaving in ways that we probably shouldn’t.

This is why we teach young people to resist peer pressure and the urge to be like everyone else; everyone else is doing something wrong at any given moment. Yet, this approach ignores the potential social benefits we can gain by channeling peer pressure, even of the abstract variety, into more productive efforts.

Instead of only inundating impressionable minds with images and anecdotes of the scary individuals out in the world looking to turn them into drug abusers, criminals or fatties, we should invoke and re-emphasize the desirable activities of the vast majority of our citizens. This should first be done by marking a clear boundary how we alarm the necessary institutions about the existence of a growing deviant behavior and how we persuade individuals to avoid doing it.

The reason I’m writing about this is that I’ve just come across a fascinating study by Arizona State psychologist and best-selling author Robert Cialdini on the Petrified Forest in California.

Despite signs clearly marking the rules and the reasons for them, the park rangers could not understand why 3% of the visitors to the Petrified Forest were still stealing pieces on the ground. It turns out that their approach may have actually contributed to increasing theft.

Cialdini breaks it down:

Although it is understandable that park officials would want to instigate corrective action by describing the dismaying size of the problem, such a message ought to be far from optimal. According to an informed normative account, it would be better to design park signage to focus visitors on the social disapproval (rather than the harmful prevalence) of environmental theft.

In order to test the idea, he placed signs showing three pictures of people stealing wood with the message, “Many past visitors have removed petrified wood from the Park, changing the natural state of the Petrified Forest.” He compared this with signs on other days, saying, “Please don’t remove the petrified wood from the Park, in order to preserve the natural state of the Petrified Forest.” It depicted a lone picture of a person stealing wood with a giant red bar through it.

Because the first sign signaled to visitors that stealing was a common behavior, it actually increased theft to 7.92% of visitors (a 164% increase), whereas the second sign decreased theft to 1.67% (a 44% decrease).

The conclusion is that showing the magnitude of a problem contributes to that same problem like a feedback loop — if others are doing it, then why shouldn’t I? I find this idea just devilishly counter-intuitive enough that I wonder if it couldn’t be applied nearly everywhere we try to regulate anti-social behavior.

One thing that comes to mind is economic cheerleading. The financial crisis will only deepen by further cutbacks in consumer spending, as this will lead to more layoffs as less goods are bought, leading to even less spending, and so forth. The government could run PSAs showing Americans shopping or buying houses (“The prices are so low nowadays, how could I not buy?”), and depicting business leaders taking pay cuts or rotating factory shifts to keep their workforce happy. What consumers need is encouragement that other people are out there taking risks and living their lives normally, social proof that uncertainty about their current jobs is unfounded. Propaganda, even.

Since Cialdini’s study is directly aimed at government PSAs, this isn’t much of a logical leap (it’s more of an application of his idea). What I’m really excited about is the implications this has on the unintended encouragement of anti-social behaviors like drug, alcohol, and tobacco abuse and unsafe sex.

Think about any commercial you’ve ever seen about marijuana. Before the unlikely disaster at the end (Johnny runs over a little girl, Billy accidentally shoots his friend), the users seem like they are having a good time. This is because, invariably, the people smoking pot are in a group. They are doing it with friends. Which sends the dual message: 1. if you smoke pot you’ll have friends, and 2. marijuana is a social drug.

Obviously point one is at best a weakly sufficient, but certainly unnecessary, condition to friendship. But number 2 is simply not the case for most people. Pot is way more likely to ground someone to their couch, silently watching a movie while eating nachos, than it is to bring the party. This is why when people bust out joints at parties it’s typically towards the end of the night as people are winding down (not to mention that they do it in a private room apart from the rest of the party). If kids are sent this message before they encounter the drug, perhaps they will be less likely to try or to continue using if they don’t particularly like it the first time (a lot of people I know are like this).

When the anti-drug people get serious about discouraging the use of drugs, they will make their commercials show groups of non-users disapproving of (or even making fun of) a loner smoking at inappropriate times and places. Instead, what we get is a circle of 9 older kids all passing around a blunt, and then the camera focuses on the square looking guy who has to ‘stand up’ to them and use his ‘courage’ to not take a puff. Thus totally alienating himself from the rest of the group and proving to kids that 9 out of 10 kids smoke pot!

The much better strategy would be to send kids the message that very few kids do drugs and smoke cigarettes, and the ones who do are generally loners and social outcasts in some way. Smoking turns you into one of those people. Stop showing commercials of people having fun in groups, instead show them playing video games by themselves with an advanced bout of the Freshman 15, juxtaposed over images of their friends having fun at a concert.

If abstinence education is your thing, you would be better off teaching sex not as a ‘temptation you have to resist,’ but as a practice more common to start up in college, not high school. Show statistics backing this up. Then show famous people who didn’t become sexually active until their 18th birthday. (If the word abstinence makes your partisan ears perk up like a bloodhound’s to an intruding squirrel, replace it with ‘monogamous relationships’ and think before you bark.)

We focus so much on teaching kids to resist groups that we forget that peer pressure can be used as a force for good as well. What this will take is tempering the alarmist rhetoric and headlines special interest groups often use to secure attention or funding for their causes in favor of the successes of the majority at avoiding poor choices. We must invoke that infamous ‘silent majority’ of vice-less people and give them a public face. Basically, times are drastic enough that revisiting ideas like Rosy the Riveter (propaganda without which many women may have never thought it normal enough to secure a factory job) in newer, more persuasive media outlets is looking like a great idea.

If I may humbly advance Cialdali’s conclusion with some insights I’ve gained from behavioral economics, let’s not only show them the right statistics. We should invert the way that statistics are typically framed to focus on the behavior we want to promote, not avoid.

For instance, an egg producer would not advertise that only 60,000 of its 10,000,000 eggs would make you sick! That’s the kind of trick the lottery pulls to make you think you have a chance of winning. 15,000 lucky contestants pulled in winnings of $400 million last year alone! Now imagine a lotto commercial advertising 9,985,000 people did not win out of 10 million contestants. The arithmetic is obvious but the framing is obviously of critical importance here.

So why do we promote the bad eggs? Let’s not teach kids that 1 in 5 teens are current users of marijuana. Rather, let’s teach them that 4 in 5 teens are not current users of marijuana. Or even better, 8 million of 10 million kids don’t take drugs. Indoctrinate students with the idea that deviant practices like taking drugs or practicing unsafe sex as a teen with multiple partners are just that — deviant.

But not in that cool, rebellious way. Prey on the high school student’s desperation to fit in by heightening his awareness of the broader social consequences. Make him consider whether he really wants to be part of a subculture looked down upon by most of the people he’ll encounter. And back that up with hard facts.

This is not to say that the people working on solving these problems should bury their head in an optimistic sand dune. We obviously need alarming statistics so that people won’t be lulled into a false sense of security (it’ll never happen to me/my family). Rather, groups looking to solve these problems should carefully choose who they decide to alarm or persuade and adjust their message and presentation accordingly. The one-size-fits-all approach just doesn’t work.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. k. ogles permalink
    June 2, 2009 10:14 pm

    Loved the article. This is the dilemma educators have in public school. 85% are doing it right and passing assessments while 15% don’t care and never will. Yet we spend 99% of our time trying to reach the 15% that in reality won’t be reached till they value education. Meanwhile the others are being denied an opportunity to accelerate their learning. This might be an interesting exercise except we can’t embarass the child who gets the 40 on an exam by publicly making this known to the class.
    We do use this approach when teaching human reproduction. If most kids know they are in the norm the pressure is less.
    Can’t wait to see you in August. Keep up the great writing! -mom

  2. June 3, 2009 2:36 am

    Big business is in every school in America. Drugs,sex and tobacco are Big business!
    The decisions the world makes is based on money.
    Until the mind set changes things will not change. Money is man made. God does not need money.
    We as human beings have built a society with money as a base of worth.
    Teachers who teach the next generation live on very little, while our actresses and rock stars live on millions.
    Homemakers and mothers who are guiding and loving our children everyday have no value.
    Our society has it’s priorities all messed up.
    I for one chose to live in a community. This is not a place but a space. I choose to make a difference in the world I live in by having a good attitude. I choose to live in love, and pay it forward.

  3. June 3, 2009 3:13 am

    Kees Keizer at the University of Groningen (NL) ran a series of experiments designed to determine the effect that the presence of vandalism, litter and low-level lawbreaking had on behavior. He found that environmental cues of disorder could double the number who are prepared to litter and steal. It seems platitudinous to state that people rely on social cues to determine what is acceptable; but quantifying the effect is still extremely useful. These studies seems to be a vindication of the ‘broken windows’ style of policing, although the success of anti-crime measures is highly contextualized.

    I’ve linked to an Economist article describing his study and others, but I will include the conclusion here:
    “The researchers’ conclusion is that one example of disorder, like graffiti or littering, can indeed encourage another, like stealing. Dr Kelling was right. The message for policymakers and police officers is that clearing up graffiti or littering promptly could help fight the spread of crime.”

    • June 6, 2009 4:58 am

      Thanks Jesse. Have you checked out the original article in the Atlantic that popularized the ‘broken windows’ theory way back in 1982? The arguments for informal police work (as in extralegal, as in ‘kicking ass’) are persuasive if not a bit frightening. The authoritarian undertones are probably rooted in the crime wave of that decade.


  1. Thanks, Andrew Sullivan! « Generalissimo

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