The Destructive Influence of Imaginary Peers

The New York Times:

We humans irrationally think we’re rational. We think that we decide how to behave by weighing the pros and cons. In reality, the strongest influence on our decisions is the example of the people around us — even, oddly enough, when they are imaginary.

Like most universities, Northern Illinois University in DeKalb has a problem with heavy drinking.  In the 1980s, the school was trying to cut down on student use of alcohol with the usual strategies. One campaign warned teenagers of the consequences of heavy drinking. “It was the ‘don’t run with a sharp stick you’ll poke your eye out’ theory of behavior change,” said Michael Haines, who was the coordinator of the school’s Health Enhancement Services. When that didn’t work, Haines tried combining the scare approach with information on how to be well:  “It’s O.K.  to drink if you don’t drink too much — but if you do, bad things will happen to you.”

NIU was the first large-scale trial of an idea developed in parallel by Perkins and by Robert Cialdini, now a professor emeritus of psychology at Arizona State University and the author of the book “Influence,” which is, well, influential.

Bad behavior is usually more visible than good.  It’s what people talk about, it’s what the news media report on, it’s what experts focus on.  Experts are always trying to change bad behavior by warning of how widespread it is, and they take any opportunity to label it a crisis.  “The field loves talking about the problems because it generates political and economic support,” said Perkins.

Read the whole story: The New York Times

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