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When Information Isn’t Enough

It’s been said the “truth shall set you free.” But the truth can also be painful.

At least that’s how I felt the other day minutes into a Communications Network webinar with Tina Rosenberg, author of the book “Join the Club. How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World.”

Said Rosenberg:

If it were true that information changes people’s lives, all smoking would have ceased after 1964.

That’s one of the big themes in her book, and probably not something someone like me, who has lived his whole professional life focused on creating and sharing information products of all forms, was prepared to hear.

My qualms notwithstanding, her argument — and which eventually won me over — is that if you want to change behavior, or more importantly, advance social change, you can’t simply tell people what you think they need to know.  You have to convince them it’s in their best interest to change.

An effective way to do that is to arm people whom others trust, look up to, or simply don’t want to let down, with the information they need to convince their peers about why they need to change their behavior. In other words, peer pressure, which sometimes is blamed for fostering bad behavior, also can be a positive force for social change.

As she said:

Information has impact when it comes from people who are credible sources to us and the most credible sources are people like us. If a teacher tells a teenager to use condoms, that information goes in one ear and out the other.  But if the teenager hears from a friend who’s discovered it’s
much better to use condoms and tells him he should, he’ll pay attention.

Another example, and one that’s been around for centuries, is the military unit.

Armies have always run on the idea of unit cohesion.  Wars are usually fought by young men who are drafted and a lot of the time don’t understand what they are fighting for and don’t consider it their cause. Yet they’ll emerge from the safety of their foxholes into enemy fire. Why do they do that?  The answer is they do it because they don’t want to seem cowardly in the eyes of their buddies. If they seem brave to their buddies, if they support their buddies, they’ll look brave.  That’s really, really important. It’s more important than living.

Over the course of the webinar, Rosenberg, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist and blogger for the New York Times, cited other examples of how peer pressure has functioned as a “social cure,” what she describes “as a way to solve problems that have proven resistant to previous attempts to solve them by using our connections to one another.”

They include getting teens to give up cigarettes by showing them that smoking isn’t quite the rebellious act they think it is. Or by ensuring borrowers pay off microcredit loans by making them aware of the shame they’ll bring to themselves and their community if they miss a payment.

As I said, initially it was off-putting to hear Rosenberg, a journalist, whose stock and trade also is information, reveal its limitation in advancing change. But she did make it clear that information is not without purpose. As she put it, “if you’re trying to convince people to change their behavior, information has to come from someone with whom they strongly identify.”

So then, what are the implications for people who do communications work for foundations, and whose primary “product” often is information?  Maybe it’s putting it into the hands of the right people and letting them run with it.

But, hey, that’s just me saying this.  Listen for yourself.

No pressure.

–Bruce Trachtenberg


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