Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Secret of the Universe

 Circa fourth grade, I read a "Choose Your Own Adventure book" called War With the Evil Power Master.   At the time, I thought nothing of the ridiculousness of a villain named the "Evil Power Master."  Literalism isn't a bad thing for a fourth grade brain.  But there was one element of the book that did blow my fourth grade mind.  The Evil Power Master was threatening not just because he was genocidal or possessed weapons of mass destruction or because he was evil and powerful and masterful.  He represented a threat because he knew "secrets of the universe"...and he was threatening to tell them.

As the second-person protagonist of the story, I took the omniscient narrator's word for it that this was a bad thing (and I suppose an omniscient narrator would also know the secrets of the universe).  I succeeded in stopping the secrets from being revealed without finding them out myself.

Until now.  Listening to a Freakonomics podcast this week, I found out at least one of the secrets of the universe.  Host Stephen Dubner actually used that very term to describe the importance of the subject he was exploring.  So without further ado, here is a secret of the universe, as summarized by Dubner himself: "Our latest Freakonomics Radio podcast is called 'Riding the Herd Mentality.' The gist: How peer pressure – and good, old-fashioned shame – can push people to do the right thing."

One may question how this is a secret, much one that could be considered a secret that is foundational to society.  Everybody knows that peer pressure is a factor in human behavior.  Then again, everybody (involved with baseball) knew that baseball players with high on-base percentages were good--yet prior to Billy Beane incorporating his "Moneyball" philosophy, most baseball executives underestimated how good baseball players with high OBPs (but relatively low batting averages) were.   Likewise, peer pressure is a great market inefficiency of our era--people consistently underestimate the impact of social stigma.

The podcast details an experiment where four different kinds of flyers were distributed in a neighborhood, all of them with a different message imploring homeowners to consume less energy.  Three of them gave logical reasons why less energy consumption would be beneficial, one of them said something like "Your neighbors have committed to using less energy.  Please join them."  In a survey, this message was rated by homeowners as the least likely to influence their behavior.  But when actual energy consumption was empirically measured, which homes do you think showed the most marked decline in energy usage?

People underestimate the power of peer pressure because they overestimate their own resistances to it.  Those who are in charge of trying to influence the behavior of others rarely employ it, since they believe they wouldn't be swayed by such an approach.  The end result is that more often than not, marketers or advocates who are attempting to influence social change choose to highlight the prevalence of a negative behavior in order to shock an audience out of complacency.  But because of our "herd mentality," such a tactic often inspires the opposite effect--"If so many people are doing it, maybe I should be, too."  (Listen to the podcast for an incredible story about how an anti-theft sign in a petrified forest caused more theft than it prevented).

So the take away is that if you are attempting to effect change, attempt to show how the desired action is normal and the current behavior is abnormal.  For example, if attempting to stop people from texting while driving, don't be in a hurry to share with them how common of a practice it is.  Instead, emphasize all the people who don't text and drive.

And the other element Dubner discussed involved making fun of people who don't follow a desired behavior.  He shared the incredible story of a Colombian mayor who hired mimes to make fun of jaywalkers (which resulted in fewer people jaywalking).  Perhaps in the future, mimes can solve all of our social problems.  I know I would gladly read a book with mimes pitted against the Evil Power Master.


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