Just as it helped drive the precipitous decline in America’s tobacco use over the past 30 years, peer pressure is a potentially powerful—and critically underused—weapon in the fight to draw down greenhouse gas emissions, according to Cornell University economists Robert H. Frank.
Confronted with tidal wave of alarming reports and headlines, it’s hardly surprising that many are feeling despair as the climate crisis ratchets up, he writes in a recent opinion piece for The Atlantic. But that hopelessness makes it even more difficult to encourage people to change their behaviours.
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“Previous warnings of impending peril have done little to alter either individual behaviour or public policy,” Frank says. But he puts his faith in “another side of human nature”—our tendency to conform to group pressure.
“Properly stoked and channelled, our instincts could help support a different trajectory,” he says.
Peer pressure is “contagious,” Frank notes, and policy-makers, pundits, and the public at large should take note of its power to deliver changes that often elude the more direct persuasions of penalty and regulation. Taxes and bans made smoking more difficult, he recalls, and helped some smokers to quit. But it wasn’t until those external correctives “kick-started a virtuous cycle” that society’s rejection of a corrosive habit really gained momentum.
“With fewer people starting to smoke, Americans had fewer smoking peers, which reduced smoking rates still further,” he writes. “After carefully controlling for other factors, one study estimated that if the percentage of smokers among a teen’s close friends fell by 50%, the probability of her becoming (or remaining) a smoker would fall by about 25%.”
Studies have shown the effects of this peer influence in many other areas, from (on the positive side) healthy eating and exercise to (less positively) increases in bullying or tax evasion. “Given the power of [behavioural] contagion, it is astonishing that the question of how policy-makers might harness this power has received so little serious attention,” Frank says.
That gap is most notable in the context of the climate crisis, where behaviours that both increase emissions (like driving larger cars) and drive them down (like solar panel adoption) are often copied within peer groups.
“The behaviours that spawned the climate crisis are perhaps even more contagious than smoking, a fact that has gone largely unnoticed by economists and climatologists, who understand global warming as a consequence of greenhouse gases being costly to eliminate and dischargeable without penalty,” he writes. This policy frame “leads naturally to pessimism” in the face of high carbon removal costs and steep opposition to taxation.
“We’ve been building bigger houses, driving heavier vehicles, commuting longer distances, staging more destination weddings, and engaging in a host of other energy-intensive activities, only partly because their true costs to the planet are not fully priced in,” Frank observes. “The far more important reason we’ve done these things is our tendency to behave as our peers do.”
The key to harnessing the power of peer pressure is to remember that it cuts both ways. “Where contagion creates a problem, it can also help solve it,” he writes. “Just as in the case of smoking, where peer effects exacerbated and then reduced the prevalence of the practice, so too could contagion help us meet the climate challenge.” When solar panels are visible from the street, for example, uptake across the neighbourhood increases.
“Peer effects could be similarly beneficial in other areas crucial to our climate future,” like eating habits or car choice, writes Frank. Such acts of peer-encouraged conscious consumption “might also reinforce our identity as climate advocates” as we witness the effects of our actions take wider hold.
“In many aspects of life, small first steps can lead to larger ones,” he writes.
I see more and more consumption and travel among my peers and when I say that I’ve given up unnecessary travel, I am not included in social gatherings as a “wet blanket.” At what point does this effect kick in?