Join the Club

club Tina Rosenberg’s “Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World” is an interesting book. No one would dispute the power of peer pressure to modify behavior. Along with genetics, peer pressure is probably the most important influence on who we are. Smoking, drugs and some other addictions mostly start with peer pressure. The conventional wisdom used to be that the way parents raise their children is what is key. Certainly parents like to think so. However, once parents have passed along the genes, they have very little influence over their children, except to choose their child’s peer group. That peer group is what shapes us.

What is surprising is not the importance of peers, but how little we use this extremely significant fact. The term peer pressure usually carries negative connotations. People associate it with teens trying drugs and seemingly grown-up families falling into dept to keep up with their neighbors. The purpose of the book “Join the Club” is to argue that peer pressure can be equally powerful when used for good, and to show how it is done.
Identification with a new peer group can change people’s behavior. The social cure does this in a wide variety of situations. It works well with teenagers — the group most likely to be taking these kinds of behavioral risks and, not coincidentally, the group most responsive to peer pressure. But it also works with adults. It is applicable in many different spheres of life, at all different levels of class and economic development. The social cure is a natural solution to help people take care of their own health, to encourage them to accomplish the difficult task of abstaining from cigarettes, alcohol and drugs as well as losing weight, doing exercise and following doctor’s orders. But it also has been successfully applied to problems in fields as diverse as political change, university education, organized religion, criminal justice, economic development in poor countries and the art of war.
While many of the stories in the book are relatively recent, emerging even in the past decade, the phenomenon is hardly new. The best-known example of the social cure is Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), which works by regularly gathering a small number of people with the common goal of sobriety. They reinforce in each other a new pattern of behavior and a new identity. AA was born in the 1930s, but the social cure as an idea is much older. It has existed as long as war has. Armies run on cohesion. For a young man with his life before him, leaving the relative safety of the foxhole to run into enemy fire — often in the service of an impersonal cause — is unnatural behavior. He does it for his buddies and because his buddies’ esteem reinforces his own identity as a brave soldier. Every good military commander exploits this phenomenon.
For centuries, organized religions have relied on the idea that your relationship with God is deepened when you are also in a relationship with others. Hence, Jesus’ fellowship with his disciples and the Jewish law that at least 10 men are needed for public worship are an example of such a relationship.
The social cure has been employed by big organizations purposefully searching for a new way to solve a chronic problem. “loveLife” is South Africa’s largest national HIV prevention initiative for young people committed to reducing the prevalence of HIV/AIDS through youth development. The methods of peer pressure were employed in loveLife as well.
These stories, which form the basis of the book, show how the social cure’s various creators invented it and fought for it, how they applied it and defended it against challenges, and how the social cure might work with other problems.
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