How Peer Pressure Creates Social Change

By Bryan Farrell 6-03-2011

People are rarely swayed by information alone. If they were, the cigarette industry would have collapsed when the first Surgeon General's report on smoking came out in 1964, and fossil fuels would have been phased out in 1989, when Congress was first alerted to the threat of global warming. As Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Tina Rosenberg writes in her recently released book Join the Club, "No amount of information can budge us when we refuse to be budged. The catalog of justifications for destructive behaviors is a tribute to human ingenuity."

So what does move us? According to Rosenberg, it's peer pressure. You know -- the same thing that drives teenagers to wear certain clothes, smoke cigarettes, and engage in all sorts of risky behavior that drive parents crazy -- except it's much bigger than that. Peer pressure is also responsible for some astounding instances of social change -- from a campaign that lowered the incidence of HIV among South African youths, to the organization that turned a previously passive and fatalistic citizenry into the nonviolent army that overthrew Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic.

I recently met up with Rosenberg to discuss her book and the implications of what she calls "the social cure" -- the process that changes people's behavior through joining a new peer group -- on the world of activism. The conversation touched on the relevance of social media, the success and fear of failure in Egypt, peer pressure as a means to combat climate change, and Rosenberg's formative years spent living under two dictatorships:

Bryan Farrell: How did the idea for this book come about?

Tina Rosenberg: I was doing a story for the New York Times Magazine on [the] psychological, social, and cultural barriers to fighting AIDS. I had gone to South Africa and the story was in part about loveLife, which is the teenage prevention program there, and it threw out old strategies of giving people information or scaring them, and instead decided to make [it] a really fun group to belong to -- one that kids would want to join. It's been quite successful.

Then I met Ivan Marovic [one of the founders of the student movement that led to the ouster of Milosevic] and I learned about Otpor [the name of that movement, which means "resistance"] from him and realized this group was using a very similar strategy. I was working at the time on writing an article about Otpor and CANVAS [the group that formed out of Otpor and has trained many activists around the world] for the Times magazine, which ended up running in Foreign Policy. Since they were both using the same strategy and techniques of trying to mobilize people for a social cause -- not by giving them information or scaring them, but by forming this really cool, hip, positive movement that allowed people to think of themselves as daring and heroic instead of passive victims in Serbia. I decided that I needed to write a book looking at how this strategy can be employed in other ways.

Farrell: You reference Malcolm Gladwell a couple times in the book. Despite few overt references to activism in his work, many activists have found his theories on the way ideas spread to be useful in their organizing efforts. Join the Club, however, is more activist-oriented. Was this a conscious decision? Did you recognize the applicability of recent social science findings to activism?

Rosenburg: I'm naturally much more political than Malcolm. He's a brilliant writer about social science curiosities. My first book, however, was about political violence in Latin America and my second one was about dealing with the past in Eastern Europe. So, I'm just more interested in those topics. But Malcolm is now writing about this. He had a New Yorker article arguing that there's no such thing as a Facebook revolution.

Farrell: Yes, that caused a big stir in the activist world. What's your take on that argument?

Rosenburg: Social media is a platform like traveling minstrels or sky writing or TV or newspapers or word of mouth. It's an effective platform. It can let you get to your membership cheaply and in a mass way. But I don't think revolutions are conducted online. I think revolutions are conducted in the street. The April 6 movement [in Egypt] may have had 75,000 members on their Facebook page, but if they hadn't had the strategies in the street, they wouldn't have gone anywhere.

Farrell: Scholars of digital activism have argued that the shortcomings of social media might not be the fault of the medium, but rather the people using it. It might be possible, rather than tout the supremacy of social media, as some "cyber utopians" do, to learn how we might better use the tool to form strong personal bonds.

Rosenburg: I don't think it is. I think what Facebook can do is get people to Tahrir Square, but you need to be in Tahrir Square to be able to build those ties and to build a movement where everybody says, "This is where I have to be." I don't think Facebook can do anything more than post the information. Maybe I'll turn out to be wrong, but for the moment, that's what I think.

[Continue reading this article at Waging Nonviolence.]

Bryan Farrell is a New York-based writer, covering topics that range from the environment and climate change to foreign policy and militarism. His work has appeared in The Nation, In These Times, Plenty, Earth Island Journal, Huffington Post, and Foreign Policy In Focus. Visit his website at

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