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The Sydney Morning Herald

Under the influence

Date: 14/05/2011
Words: 733
Source: SMH
          Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: Spectrum
Page: 23
Peer pressure can be a powerful force for good, writes MEGAN JOHNSTON.

It is the curse of adolescents and a headache for parents. Should teens smoke, dabble with drugs or show other signs of wayward behaviour, the probable culprit is peer pressure.

In many ways, the phenomenon deserves its bad rap for being a destructive force that can encourage the worst kinds of behaviour.

But what if peer pressure could be turned on its head - not simply to encourage positive behaviour but to solve some of the world's most pressing problems? At best, it can help with study, weight loss or the avoidance of disease. With enough resources and political will, it could help slow environmental degradation or overthrow dictators.

That is the message of a book by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and New York Times magazine writer Tina Rosenberg. Join the Club explores an approach the author calls the "social cure", which harnesses our longing for social prestige and human connection to create positive social change.

"Negative peer pressure is an extremely destructive force," she says. "It's so powerful that, in many cases, the only antidote is positive peer pressure." Rosenberg decided to see whether its power could be harnessed for positive change after researching the story of Ivan Marovic, who led the Serbian student campaign that triggered the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic a decade ago. Rather than rely on conventional political tactics, the young activists used hip slogans, humour and music to spark a popular political movement.

After realising she had seen AIDS-prevention workers employ similar techniques in South Africa, Rosenberg began to look for other examples of the "social cure" around the world.

She found programs that encourage minority university students in the US to study together to help improve marks and systems that tackle discrimination and health problems in India by training poor villagers and thereby improving their social standing.

These projects appear to work because they tap into people's need to fit in and can offer them an alternative identity.

Projects that use peer pressure apply particularly well to poor societies because they are relatively cheap and target what poor people have in abundance - social capital.

By documenting such examples, Rosenberg hopes to create a blueprint for future activists. Counter to intuition, such projects tend to avoid conventional appeals to people's rationality.

"If you want to help someone change their behaviour to accomplish a social goal, don't give them new information and don't use appeals based on fear," Rosenberg says. "The most effective way is to provide them with a new peer group of people who they can identify with and who can hold them accountable. If you can get people to be active and to overcome their fear, fatalism and passivity, then you've gone a long way towards what you want to do."

Such techniques aren't necessarily new. Alcoholics Anonymous is a model for overcoming substance abuse that has been used for decades. But Rosenberg argues such approaches have been greatly underutilised and could be harnessed to solve many problems resistant to intervention.

"Buddy" support systems or peer coaches could help people lose weight or stick to medication, for example, while environmental problems such as climate change could be slowed by peer pressure.

But positive peer pressure comes with caveats, she says. It is not particularly good at persuading or educating people about a certain topic and it requires time, resources and political will. And knowing when and where to use such tactics is a subjective judgment.

Humans need to feel connected and accepted and that's why peer pressure is so powerful.

"In America, we have gone way too far on to the side of individualism and we have lost the idea of connection with other people," Rosenberg says. "We have forgotten that we need that to be happy. We could adopt the joys of living in a small place where one knows your neighbours but you don't need to live in a village to do that."

Join the Club (W.W. Norton

& Company) is out now.

The 'socialcure' is ...

- A way of changing human behaviour by using positive peer pressure.

- An approach that presents people with a new peer group with which they are able to identify and that can hold them accountable.

- Applicable to anything from individual issues such as addiction, disease and spirituality to global concerns (such as climate change or political oppression).

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