Mike Kueber's Blog

September 11, 2011

Book Review #45 – Join the Club, by Tina Rosenberg

Filed under: Book reviews — Mike Kueber @ 2:16 am
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Join the Club is subtitled, “How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World,” and that is an apt description of the book.  Although the concept of peer pressure usually has negative connotations, author Tina Rosenberg describes how peer pressure can be harnessed as a force for good.  She calls this concept “the social cure.”

Rosenberg begins by accepting the importance of peer pressure, which she believes is (along with genetics) significantly more influential than other pressures, even parental influence.  In fact, she says that the best way for parents to influence their kids is by attempting to select their peers.

Although the concept of the social cure has been studied by others, Rosenberg adds great insights in directing the social cure toward a variety of social ills:

  • The typical attempt to solve a social ill focuses on giving people information, or it tries to manipulate people through fear.  But these strategies fail exactly when the issue becomes most salient and emotionally fraught.  The more important and deeply rooted the behavior, the less impact information has and the more people close their minds to messages that scare them.”  (Rosenberg provides a length explanation of how “our psyches, our genes, our economics, and our culture that makes us act so illogically.”)
  • “Instead they aim at what people want now: to belong, to be part of the in crowd, to be loved and admired and respected.  These programs change personal behavior through social pressure.  They offer people a new and desirable club to join – a peer group so strong and persuasive that the individual adopts a new identity.”  (Rosenberg twice refers to Malcolm Gladwell’s discussion of this in his book, The Tipping Point.)
  • “The social cure can be useful when: (1) people are in trouble because of behavioral choices they make that offer comfort, pleasure, or acceptance in the short term but lead to harm in the long term; (2) that behavior can be changed through identification with a new peer group.”

Rosenberg gives highly granular descriptions of the social cure being applied successfully to AIDS/HIV in South Africa, micro-lending in India, math for minorities in America, mega-churches in Chicago, youth-smoking in Florida and South Carolina, and a student revolution in Yugoslavia.

The mega-church in Chicago is called Willow Creek Community Church.  Coincidentally, the church was examined it great detail in David Brooks’ The Social Animal, which I previously discussed in Book Review #36, and one of its leading visionaries, pastor Randy Frazee, recently relocated to San Antonio’s Oak Hills Church.

I found the anti-smoking campaign especially interesting because the social cure involved sophisticated branding to counter the tobacco companies’ Joe Camel-type marketing toward kids.  It also included a successful effort to go negative – i.e., to brand the tobacco companies as evil businesses that attempt to exploit kids.

Rosenberg was most impressed by the student revolution in Yugoslavia, which taught “budding movements to forgo mass demonstrations in favor of growing step-by-step…. the use of branding, humor, dilemma actions, and techniques for turning fear to advantage.  It shows groups how to make people want to take part, by structuring the movement so that your members can see themselves, and be seen by others, as creative, clued in, valuable, and heroic.”  More importantly, it “greatly expanded the scope of the social cure.  A casual examination of the idea of behavior change through peer pressure might suggest that it is applicable only to personal problems.  Serbia’s experience is spectacularly the opposite.  It shows that while the social cure can help people conquer their personal demons, it can also mobilize them to act in the grandest dramas of our time.”

As a person who prefers informational ads and generally disparages superficial marketing, I found Join the Club to be a revelation.  As an aspiring politician, I will need to internalize the book’s insights if I want to be effective.

(I’m not sure why the book isn’t called “The Social Cure.”  Rosenberg suggests that she coined the expression, but the concept has previously been reported in scientific journals and in the mass media.  As reported in the LA Times a year ago, “Many public health leaders now believe this growing science of social networks can be used to improve health and well-being on a broad, population-sized scale. Some see the approach as a promising new front against the day’s most urgent health problems, such as obesity, smoking and suicide.”  A trio of scientists has also written on the subject and their new book titled, “The Social Cure,” was published a few weeks ago.)

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