The Destructive Influence of Imaginary Peers

Tina Rosenberg with a thoughtful op-ed in the NYT on the influence people around us have on our decisions, even, oddly, when they are imaginary.

Bad behavior is usually more visible than good. It’s what people talk about, it’s what the news media report on, it’s what experts focus on. Experts are always trying to change bad behavior by warning of how widespread it is, and they take any opportunity to label it a crisis. “The field loves talking about the problems because it generates political and economic support,” said Perkins.

This strategy might feel effective, but it’s not — it simply communicates that bad behavior is the social norm. Telling people to go against their peer group never works. A better strategy is the reverse: give people credible evidence that among their peers, good behavior is the social norm.

In short, stop nagging people about what they shouldn’t be doing and instead tell them how other people are doing the right thing.

Why does this work?

Because when we don’t know what to do in a situation, we naturally look around to see what other people are doing. “From that we learn what is appropriate, and what is practical.”

With traditional approaches to behavior change, an outsider comes in, warns you of the dire consequences of your behavior and tells you what to do differently. That often just makes people defensive.

With social norming you tell people what other people are doing, not what they should be doing. But we need to be aware of salience.

“We can only hold one thing in consciousness at a time – and it is that thing that drives behavior,” said Cialdini, who is writing his next book about the topic. Success is more likely if the social norming message hits people just when they are about to make that behavioral decision.

And, of course, you need to make sure the behavior you’re norming is credible and accurate.

Also, it helps to compare people’s behavior to the closest peer group possible. For example, Cialdini’s towel study found that people were even more likely to re-use towels when told that most people who had stayed in the same room did so.

If you consider the social norm as a sort of baseline, then the people doing worse than the baseline will improve their behavior. But we’re not all below the baseline; some people are above average. Simply knowing that you’re actually doing better than your peers can turn you into a slacker.

This is called the boomerang effect, and it is real. Opower initially found that households that were saving a lot of energy relaxed their efforts once they know how other people were doing. But Opower officials solved the problem by providing rewards for good behavior. Well, a computer did – the “reward” was a smiley face or two on their bill. That small change kept people from backsliding, and the boomerang stopped.

One of the mysteries of social norming is that although it is being used by some people in several fields, it isn’t used by a lot of people. Even institutions that used it successfully in the past have abandoned it when the champion left.

Social norms work below our conscious radar. “People don’t see themselves as easily influenced by those around them,” Cialdini says. When people are asked what would make them change a behavior, they rank “what my peers are doing” last. But when tested against what does, in fact, change behavior, it comes first.

Rosenberg concludes that “[f]ollowing the crowd is primal.”

If you’re interested in understanding how people persuade you—and how you can better persuade others—you should read Robert Cialdini’s books Yes!: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to be Persuasive and Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.