January 10, 2014


Usually when we think of “peer pressure,” the first things that come to mind are lectures from parents. In fact, you probably picture something a little bit like this scene from the sitcom Growing Pains: 

But Tina Rosenberg, winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the MacArthur Genius Grant, is working to change that perception. In her newest book, “Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World,” Rosenberg advances the surprising argument that peer pressure can actually help us. 

Take this example. Uri Triesman was a graduate student at UC Berkeley when he noticed that in one calculus class, some of the students who did the most poorly were black and Latino, while some of the students who performed best were Asian. So he began looking a little deeper and noticed an interesting trend: the Asian students often studied in groups, but the black and Latino students mostly studied alone.

So Triesman conducted an experiment. He set up math discussion sections three times a week, where students met in small groups and worked on problems. These weren’t easy or remedial problems – in fact, they were even more difficult than the ones used in lecture – and the teacher wasn’t allowed to assist them.

Amazingly, he found that it worked. Students were more likely to ask questions of their peers they wouldn’t ask in lecture, and they came to a deeper understanding of the material when they had to explain it to someone else.  As a result, academic performance among the students in these groups improved considerably.

So what’s the secret of using peer pressure successfully? “You have to have information that’s credible if you want people to think about it and assimilate it,” Rosenberg explains. “Credible information is information that comes from people like me and speaks to me where I am. You have to meet people where you are.” 

For more on the unexpected benefits of peer pressure – including how it can even be used to fight terrorism – tune in to our full interview with Tina Rosenberg, above.

peer pressure, Education, Body and Mind, Culture, relationships, social theory

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