Do you remember the anxiety of being picked last for the team in phys ed? Or the pressure of doing an oral presentation right after the coolest kid around in English class? Of course you do! Such events threatened your fundamental need to belong, and so they impacted you deeply at the time they happened.
The desire to fit in is a powerful shaper of behavior. In some cases, social pressures serve us well. Only 20 or 30 years ago, the following behaviors were widely accepted: smoking in public places, drinking and driving, littering, riding in a car without a seat belt or on a motorcycle without a helmet, and unprotected sex.
I’m so glad things have changed!
In other cases, social pressures are lagging behind the times. Below are some examples which are still widely accepted, but really need to change:
- Sleep: We still glorify sleep deprivation, as if it proves our strong work ethic. But in reality, we should realize that those bragging about their sleep debt are temporarily and reversibly mentally-impaired, and too groggy to realize it.
- Food: It is still common to twist somebody else’s arm so they eat something unhealthy. “Come on, just one piece of brownie won’t kill you!” We all have enough of a hard time all on our own resisting temptations. We should work harder to applaud other’s self-discipline.
- Mood: Few ignore how pervasive, contagious, and detrimental stress can be, yet we all sink in our seats when someone spreads unnecessary stress around. No one benefits when we accept others dumping their garbage around as they please, so why are we still silent?
- Exercise: Sitting is the new smoking. There’s new research coming out every month about the dangers of our sedentary lifestyles – see this Washington Post infographic for one example. Yet social convention pressures us into spending long days at work without refreshing our minds and bodies through a little healthy movement.
How can we start shifting things so that the unhealthy norms just listed can become a thing of the past, much like smoking in public places and drinking and driving did?
Most people are willing to change when they see a clear personal benefit in the proposed change, and when they are convinced that those around them are implementing the change as well, says the World Bank.
The first portion of that equation is easier: most people understand that sleeping enough, eating right and moving more will help them be at their best and avoid undesirable health conditions. Our challenge lies not in promoting individual reasons for change, but in challenging what’s considered normal social behavior, and in defining new norms.
A North Carolina program aimed at preventing teenage pregnancy used the tagline ‘Talk to Your Kids About Sex. Everyone else is.’ (DuRant et al, 2006). This message created a tension more uncomfortable then the uncomfortable conversation itself. Who would want their kid to be the only one uninformed about important issues that affect people their age? A phone survey found that parents who had been exposed to this campaign were more likely to talk to their teens about sex the next month.
This experiment suggests that social norms can be effective motivators for behavior change, and I’d like to explore how to use them for the greater good. Some may be concerned that following others is a shallow extrinsic motivation that won’t last. However, the desire to fit in is a powerful intrinsic motivation, which is what I want to tap into here. Plus, once healthy behaviors are in place, they are often self-reinforcing.
Positive Pressure as a Health Promotion Strategy
If you’d like to experiment with social pressure as a behavioral change motivator, be careful not to state that the behavior you’re trying to extinguish is the current norm. For example, a campaign declaring “we’re all eating very large portions around here, let’s reduce them” would reinforce the social acceptability of overeating, and your efforts would backfire. Instead, let the desired behavior take center stage: “We’re all trying to eat less. Let’s help each other out.”
With that in mind, here are a few health promotion strategies to address the pet peeves I identified previously:
- Sleep: Host a lunch and learn about the importance of sleep and encourage your participants to respond to those who brag about their sleep deprivation with an equally boastful statement of how well they slept lately, and how refreshed they feel as a result.
- Food: A lot of good eating intentions are sapped by the sugary snacks brought to the break room by well-meaning colleagues who didn’t want to eat a whole batch of cookies on their own. Tom Rath suggests throwing away our extras rather than taking them to work. Perhaps you could talk to your colleagues and agree on a new norm, such as “If it’s not healthy enough for you, it’s not good enough for your colleagues either.” Or perhaps you could start a group competition to see who can tweak favorite recipes to make them “a tad lighter in calories and richer in healthy nutrients,” as we describe in the Be Sneaky chapter of the Smarts and Stamina book.
- Mood: Here’s a stat worth sharing, and which can put a little pressure on the energy vampires at your organization: according to this Harvard Business Review article, 90% of anxiety at work is created by 5% of one’s network. Share this information so that everyone in your organization is familiar with it. Hopefully it will encourage everyone to take a good look in the mirror each day.
- Exercise: Meeting leaders will often start things out by making a statement about why the group has been gathered together. Very often, that statement is followed by a question: “Does that sound good to everyone? Anything else you’d like to add?” Here’s your opportunity to add a little social pressure. “Sure, and I’d like us to make sure everyone is contributing to the best of their ability throughout the meeting by allowing everyone to stand up/to enjoy a stretching break each hour.” Ta-da! Tough to say no to that!
Before I go, let me clarify: I am not suggesting that we ostracize those who adopt or even promote unhealthy behaviors. But I would like to see more of us wellness leaders skillfully and empathically use social pressure to reject behaviors we know to be harmful, and thus craft healthier norms for everyone. In other words, I’d rather ruffle a few feathers if need be and press our norms to evolve than maintain a status quo we now know to be blatantly outdated.
DuRant, R.H., Wolfson, M., LeFrance, B., Balkrishan, R. & Altman, D. (2006). An evaluation of a mass media campaign to encourage parents of adolescents to talk to their children about sex. Journal of Adolescent Health 38 (3) 298–309.
Pollay, D. (2012). The Law of the Garbage Truck: How to Stop People from Dumping on You. Sterling Press.
Rath, T. (2013). Eat Move Sleep: How Small Choices Lead to Big Changes. Arlington, VA: Missionday.
Schultz, P. W., Nolan, J. M., Cialdini, R. B., Goldstein, N. J., & Griskevicius, V. (2007). The constructive, destructive, and reconstructive power of social norms. Psychological Science, 18(5), 429–434.
Shaar, M.J. & Britton, K. (2011). Smarts and Stamina: The Busy Person’s Guide to Optimal Health and Performance. Philadelphia, PA: Positive Psychology Press.