The Social Cure: How Peer Pressure Creates Change

From fighting AIDS to overthrowing dictators, how grassroots groups are making activism cool.
Egypt celebration, photo by Erik N

On February 25, 2011, protesters in Tahrir Square celebrate the resignation of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.

Photo by Erik N

People are rarely swayed by information alone. If they were, the cigarette industry would have collapsed when the first Surgeon General’s report on the dangers of smoking came out in 1964, and fossil fuels would have been phased out around 1989, when Congress was first alerted to the threat of global climate change. As Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Tina Rosenberg writes in her recently released book Join the Club, “No amount of information can budge us when we refuse to be budged. The catalog of justifications for destructive behaviors is a tribute to human ingenuity.”

So what does move us? According to Rosenberg, it’s peer pressure. You know—the same thing that drives teenagers to wear certain clothes, smoke cigarettes, and engage in all sorts of risky behavior that drives parents crazy—except it’s much bigger than that. Peer pressure is also responsible for some astounding instances of social change, which Rosenberg highlights in her book—from a campaign that lowered the incidence of HIV among South African youths to the organization of a previously passive and fatalistic citizenry into the nonviolent army that overthrew Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic.

I recently met up with Rosenberg to discuss her book and the implications of what she calls “the social cure”—the process that changes people’s behavior through joining a new peer group—on the world of activism. The conversation touched on the relevance of social media, the success and fear of failure in Egypt, and peer pressure as a means to combat climate change.

Bryan Farrell: How did the idea for this book come about?

Tina Rosenberg: I was doing a story for the New York Times Magazine on psychological, social, and cultural barriers to fighting AIDS. The story was in part about loveLife, the teenage prevention program in South Africa, which threw out old strategies of scaring people and instead decided to make a really fun group to belong to—one that was very positive; one that kids would want to join. It’s been quite successful. Then I met Ivan Marovic [one of the founders of the student movement that led to the ouster of Milosevic] and I learned about Otpor [the name of that movement, which means "Resistance"] from him and realized this group was using a very similar strategy. Both using the same techniques of trying to mobilize people for a social cause—not by simply giving them information or by scaring them, but by forming this really cool, hip, positive movement that allowed people to think of themselves as daring and heroic instead of passive victims. I decided that I needed to write a book looking at how this strategy can be employed in other ways.

So what does move us? According to Rosenberg, it’s peer pressure. The same thing that drives teenagers to wear certain clothes, smoke cigarettes, and engage in all sorts of risky behavior that drives parents crazy—except it’s much bigger than that.

Farrell: You reference Malcolm Gladwell a couple times in the book. Despite few overt references to activism in his work, many activists have found his theories on the way ideas spread to be useful in their organizing efforts. Join the Club, however, is more activist-oriented. Was this a conscious decision? Did you recognize the applicability of recent social science findings to activism?

Rosenberg: I’m naturally much more political than Malcolm. He’s a brilliant writer about social science curiosities. My first book, however, was about political violence in Latin America and my second one was about dealing with the past in Eastern Europe. I’m more interested in those topics. But Malcolm is now writing about this. He had a New Yorker article arguing that there’s no such thing as a Facebook revolution.

Farrell: Yes, that caused a big stir in the activist world. What’s your take on that argument?

Rosenberg: Social media is a platform for communication—like traveling minstrels or sky writing or TV or newspapers or word of mouth. It’s an effective platform. It can let you get to your membership cheaply and in a mass way. But I don’t think revolutions are conducted online. I think revolutions are conducted in the street. The April 6 movement in Egypt may have had 75,000 members on their Facebook page, but if they hadn’t had the strategies in the street, they wouldn’t have gone anywhere.

Join the Club Book Cover

Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World

By Tina Rosenberg
W. W. Norton & Company, 2011, 402 pages, $25.95

Support YES! when you buy here from an independent bookstore.


Farrell: Scholars of digital activism have argued that the shortcomings of social media might not be the fault of the medium, but rather the people using it. It might be possible, rather than tout the supremacy of social media, to learn how we might better use the tool to form strong personal bonds.

Rosenberg: I think what Facebook can do is get people to Tahrir Square, but you need to be in Tahrir Square to be able to build those ties and to build a movement where everybody says, “This is where I have to be.” I don’t think Facebook can do anything more than post the information. Maybe I’ll turn out to be wrong, but for the moment, that’s what I think.

Farrell: How did you see a social cure at work in Egypt?

Rosenberg: First of all, obviously a lot of the tactics that CANVAS [the group that formed out of Serbia’s Otpor and which has trained many activists around the world] used were at work in Egypt—not necessary the social cure ones, but the more strategic ones, such as being nice to the police, et cetera. I think those are very important, but the social cure was evident in the way people felt about themselves during the revolution. Going into Tahrir Square, being surrounded by this wave of massive goodwill and the feeling that you’re a hero, that you’re daring, and that you’re doing something important. I think that was absolutely crucial in Egypt, and that’s the social cure.

Farrell: In the book, you mention that everyone in Otpor agreed on the need to overthrow Milosevic, but not everyone agreed on what Serbia might look like after Milosevic—particularly the economic system. This has been the case with other recent nonviolent pro-democracy movements and has led to lingering issues in those countries, despite the victory of largely bloodless regime change. We are starting to see it in Tunisia and Egypt, with the G8 pledging billions of dollars in aid to the two countries so long as they embrace neoliberalism. Can a social cure be used to support a long-term vision that protects countries from being manipulated by global powers?

Rosenberg: The purpose of a social cure is not to inform; it’s to motivate. You need to already have a basic agreement on what you’re motivating people to do and it has to be something people already know they want to do. So with policy, it’s just not going to work like that. I can imagine, for example, how it could be used to run an anti-corruption campaign. It’s something that’s really clear; everyone already knows we want this.

Farrell: Do you see a similarity between the social cure and nonviolence, at least in the way that they make use of group dynamics and winning people over to a particular side?

Rosenberg: I think they’re really different. The social cure is not just about community. I want to make a really big distinction between the way we form groups and the idea of social capital. Having ties with other people is a very good idea and I think that’s extraordinarily important for nonviolent struggle, but that’s not what I’m writing about. What I’m writing about is how to use that social capital in a very specific way, which is to create behavioral change.

The key in mobilizing people with the social cure is to focus on what getting involved in an issue has to do with you—about how you think of yourself and how your friends think of you.

Revolutions are conducted in the street. The April 6 movement in Egypt may have had 75,000 members on their Facebook page, but if they hadn’t had the strategies in the street, they wouldn’t have gone anywhere.

Farrell: Climate change is an issue that plays on many of the themes in your book—it’s such a major failure of information to inspire social change. You mention it only a few times throughout the book, but clearly it’s something you’ve been thinking about.

Rosenberg: It is, and it’s a tough one, because the problem is extremely salient and present and overwhelmingly important in some countries, but those are not the countries that have the capacity to do anything about it. If they had lots of coal plants in Ethiopia, they could probably amass huge protests. But they don’t. They have coal plants in countries where people are not yet personally touched by climate change to the degree that they are in other places. That kind of distance is a big problem for using the social cure for climate change—but it may not be five years from now.


  • Here’s evidence that nonviolence is the most powerful tool to promote democracy and overthrow tyranny.

  • How online activism can help us understand how real change is made.
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