The good side of peer pressure

If you were a policy maker, how would you go about influencing people’s behaviour to, amongst other things, increase waste recycling, use more renewable energy, follow a healthier lifestyle, pay due taxes, drive safer, etc?

Approaches which would typically come to mind include monetary incentives, education, increased signage, distribution of leaflets, and the like. However, are these really effective? And if indeed they are effective, which would yield the best results?

This is a question which a team from Arizona State University tried to answer by distributing four different messages to encourage people to save energy:
1. Please reduce energy in your home in order to reduce the expenditure of resources on the planet.
2. Please reduce energy consumption in the home in order to save money at the end of the month on your own bill.
3. Please do this for future generations so that your children will have access to these resources.
4. The majority of your neighbors are regularly undertaking efforts to reduce energy in their homes, please follow.

Interestingly, the only message that made a significant effect on the consumption of the households receiving it was the fourth one. The implications of this finding are huge: it means that people do not care for future generations, the planet, or for that matter the amount of money in their pocket as much as they care what their neighbours are doing. This is not news really because we are all aware of the power of peer pressure, but it doesn’t seem to be much exploited for the right reasons. Indeed, it is more the negative side of it that we observe the most, for example people tending to litter more in already littered places.

More worryingly, if policy makers are not aware of this force, certain measures might actually be counter productive: Another shocking study by the same university showed that parts of a forest containing signs saying: “Because so many people are stealing petrified wood from the forest floor, at the rate of nearly a ton a month, it is undermining the integrity of the forest.” lost three times as much wood as other parts without such signs!

Although peer pressure frequently has negative connotations, imagine if this is used more and more to encourage the right behaviour: please pay your taxes like the other 80% of Maltese who do (which is true by the way if the estimated black economy is correct at 26%). Or imagine being mocked for breaking traffic rules. I know it sounds far fetched but this has actually been successfully applied in the capital of Columbia by mayor Antanas Mockus: For example someone crossing a busy road without using the pedestrian crossing would be mimed and shamed.

Who knows, maybe one day people in our society will no longer feel uncomfortable because of their skin colour or sexual orientation but rather for their uncivic behaviour.


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