Open Book

Creating New Paths for Change

How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World

Magazine Issue
July/August 2011
Bookmarks Jul-Aug 2011

Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World
By Tina Rosenberg
W. W. Norton. 288 pp.
ISBN: 9780393068580
Purchase this book on Amazon


Peer pressure has gotten an undeservedly bad rap, according to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Tina Rosenberg in her breezily enthusiastic new book, Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World. Rather than dwelling on the dark side of peer pressure, with its well-known potential for encouraging antisocial behavior in teen gangs and groups of any age, she advocates focusing on the many ways positive peer pressure can help motivate change for the better in every realm, from public health to political governance to spiritual well-being.

Rosenberg has even coined a catchy term to describe what happens when you do what her title suggests and “join the club” (or join a club) designed to help mend at least one small part of the world: participate and—instead of remaining part of the problem—you become part of what she calls “the social cure.”

In her upbeat attempt to encourage the social cure, Rosenberg clearly has been influenced by behavioral economics and Positive Psychology—not to mention the current trend toward rethinking social issues from the kind of counterintuitive point of view popularized by authors such as Malcolm Gladwell. Countering the current legislative mania for slashing budgets and increased privatization, she cheerleads for even more funding for demonstrably successful public programs and for new, socially based approaches to age-old problems, like prejudice and poverty. What distinguishes her approach from traditional liberal remedies is reliance on the new tools of web-based social media and the latest tactics borrowed from sophisticated marketing campaigns and savvy advertising agencies.

Rosenberg rightly points out what public health and social-reform advocates have known for a long time: standard appeals to get people to change bad behavior by throwing information or prescriptive slogans at them (“Say No to Drugs”) often fall on deaf ears because most people have long since learned to tune them out. In addition, scare tactics usually fail because those who smoke or do drugs or don’t use condoms believe bad things will happen only to other people.

Rosenberg presents a plethora of new models that demonstrate how to get across a message in a non-preachy format. Unfortunately, what gets lost in her emphasis on the new is a sense of how much the programs she highlights owe to the “old” disciplines of social psychology, sociology, education, and social work. Looked at more closely, many of the programs turn out to include new spins on familiar 12-step features. For example, some of them give each new group member a sponsor or a mentor, or offer regular small-group sessions in which members share their stories and help support one another. Perhaps her enthusiasm for relatively recent social programs explains Rosenberg’s otherwise puzzlingly skimpy discussion of Alcoholics Anonymous and its offspring. But I fear this omission will leave readers with the impression that, to succeed, all new programs need to invent themselves from scratch. While that may sometimes be true, many of these programs demonstrate that the most successful strategies from the past can still work, especially if they’re repackaged in a contemporary, “with it” manner.

To demonstrate her thesis that peer pressure is one of the most powerful tools for social reform, she describes a wide-ranging list of innovative programs from around the world. For instance, in the 1970s, in rural India, a husband-and-wife team of doctors began training impoverished women, mostly from the Untouchable caste, as village healthcare medics, who then recruited and taught others to do the same. As these former outcasts brought better sanitary and health practices to their villages, they shed their past identities as members of a powerless underclass and came to be seen as members of a newly empowered group of women dedicated to a worthy cause. In the process, they earned the respect and gratitude of the very neighbors who’d always disdained them, but now depended on them for medical information and assistance. This is one “social cure” that does indeed benefit everyone.

Rosenberg asserts that in Belgrade, positive peer pressure played a significant role in the overthrow of the genocidal dictator Slobodan Milosevic in the late 1990s. One particularly influential “club,” she argues, was Otpor (Serbian for Resistance), a small anti-government youth movement, which drew outsized support for reform by staging attention-getting public pranks (like rolling a barrel painted with Milosevic’s face down the main street of Belgrade and inviting passersby to whack the dictator for a dinar a shot), thus making it seem cool to be both in on the joke and part of the revolution. Such ad hoc activism by young dissidents resembles the youth-led grassroots movements now striving to reform dictatorial regimes throughout the Middle East.

Then there’s loveLife, a government-financed South African public health program aimed at stopping the spread of AIDS by encouraging teens to use condoms and practice safe sex. LoveLife took a page from corporate advertising promotions and created a hip marketing campaign to convey the message that it’s cooler to act responsibly than behave badly. The unlikely inspiration for this campaign was the successful brand relaunch of the soft drink Sprite, which centered on creating an “aspirational lifestyle brand.” Like Sprite, loveLife hired teens to recruit their peers to attend brand-sponsored sports events, concerts, and other activities, creating a club they’d want to be part of and draw more kids into. By 2006, Rosenberg reports, loveLife had become one of the country’s top 10 brands, made recognizable throughout the country with 1,200 billboards and constant TV, radio, and web exposure, along with a widely used telephone hotline. What made loveLife work for her, one young woman told Rosenberg, was that “It wasn’t about HIV. It was about me. No one is wagging a finger at me, just young people, peers, telling me the way you’ve lived your life is not good, and we’re going to help you.”

In Rosenberg’s description, what’s most novel about loveLife is the route by which it caught these teens’ attention. What made it work was that the marketing hoopla and events got kids talking directly to each other, face to face, in small groups, and with counselors. Change happened not just because of bread and circuses and billboards, but because of the person-to-person connections these things promoted.

In addition, Rosenberg describes publicly funded teen anti-smoking programs in the United States, including Florida’s Students Working Against Tobacco (SWAT) and South Carolina’s Against the Haze. As with loveLife, these programs steered clear of lecturing and fear-mongering. Instead, they tapped into a generational dynamic: teen outrage at being lied to, and manipulated by, hypocritical adults, represented by Big Tobacco. As a result, the SWAT campaign’s public slogan was “Truth.” Its public service ads never overtly stated, “Don’t Smoke,” but the message was implicit, and between 1999 and 2007 in Florida, the number of middle and high school students who smoked was cut in half.

Beyond social justice and public health issues, Rosenberg turns her attention to how social cures benefit religious and spiritual communities. She describes efforts to develop a greater sense of community and deeper religious commitment by Willow Creek Community Church, a megachurch in Illinois with a congregation of 21,000. Ironically, the church’s success in attracting so many parishioners had made it unfriendly for those seeking a more personal connection with their faith, their spirituality, and each other—the kind of experience that often develops in smaller congregations. To recreate that small-town feeling within their megachurch, the church’s leadership began encouraging the members to form small neighborhood groups. Participants soon found that getting together several times each week—for a barbecue, to jog around the park, to share time with the kids, or engage in Bible study—helped bind members together as an extended family far more than just seeing each other at church on Sunday. From Rosenberg’s accounts, it seems that for isolated suburbanites in search of connection, finding a small group of likeminded coreligionists is almost a revelation. However, it struck me that, to many, the commune-like togetherness that worked for the families that Rosenberg focuses on here might feel cloying rather than liberating.

Rosenberg is at her best as a reporter, and she originally wrote about several of these programs for The New York Times and National Geographic. Perhaps that’s why the book seems to lack a narrative arc, reading instead like a rambling series of journalistic adventures, loosely threaded together under the general heading of “social cure,” a label that fits some examples better than others. The Willow Creek Church, for instance, is less about finding a social cure than about creating a community that can accommodate the needs of more than 20,000 people. Similarly, Otpor is a fascinating example of political resistance, but Rosenberg’s lengthy disquisition on the subject started to sound like a continuation of her previous book, The Haunted Land, about the fall and aftermath of communism in Eastern Europe.

Clearly, Rosenberg is committed to bringing attention to new ways to fix our world. (In fact, she currently writes the blog “Fixes” on just this theme for The New York Times.) In an age of rampant cynicism, her optimism is thoroughly refreshing, even if she does start sounding like a policy wonk zealously rolling out ideas for reforming just about everything and everyone—even those who say “I’m not a joiner.”

Diane Cole

Diane Cole is the author of the memoir After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges and writes for The Wall Street Journal and many other publications.