Peer Pressure

Michael Metzger

When a handful of Phoenix hotels aimed to become more eco-friendly, they tried four approaches to get guests to reuse towels. Of the four, “do it for the environment” proved least effective. It turns out that moral appeals like “do the right thing” rarely work. It’s not the way human nature is wired. In reality, there’s a better way.

Humans may be moral creatures, but making people aware of moral issues rarely motivates them. This was reinforced several years ago in a study conducted by social psychologist Robert Cialdini. He compared the effects of hotel-bathroom placards at a number of Phoenix hotels that asked guests to reuse towels. Cialdini is a professor at Arizona State University who has studied what motivates people to take care of the environment. He tested four slightly different messages. The first placard was the standard “do it for the environment.” The results were so-so. It turns out that caring is too remote from experienced reality. The second placard got closer.

It was an appeal to “cooperate with the hotel.” This placard yielded better results because customers interacted periodically with hotel workers—but not enough to care. The third placard asked guests to “be our partner in this cause.” It stated that the majority of guests in the hotel reused towels at least once during their stay. “Partnering” proved more effective than the first two appeals, but even it was too remote. Most guests can’t imagine “the majority of guests.” It’s not their experience in a hotel.

The fourth message was the most effective. This placard said that the majority of guests “in this room” had reused their towels. The social norm is what grabbed attention. Cialdini terms this effect “social proof.” People tend to conform to social customs, or what others call peer pressure. When people discover what the most of their peers are already doing, they’re more likely to begin doing it themselves.

This may not sound revolutionary, but it does explain much of the ancient church’s success. People tend to convert to what their surrounding culture tells them is normative. Making normative culture was at one time the primary purpose of the church. “Culture is seen in what people do unthinkingly, what is “natural” to them and therefore requires no explanation or justification,” Dallas Willard writes. “These cultures structure their lives.”1 According to sociologist Rodney Stark, the early church influenced change-agents who created cultural norms. By AD 300 they had led about six million people to faith, or about ten percent of the population of the Roman Empire.

Once these changes were part of the normative culture in business and education however, tens of millions of people jumped in. By the mid 300’s Christian numbers had swelled to one in every two persons in the Roman Empire. If you look at it sociologically, this jump in conversions wasn’t so much the result of evangelists, apologists, or “professional missionaries conveying a new message, but by rank-and-file members” who produced new cultural norms in education and commerce.2

Present-day reality is slightly different. Most faith communities assume that preaching the gospel and “doctrinal appeal lies at the heart of the conversion process—that people hear the message, find it attractive, and embrace the faith,” Stark writes. “But modern social science relegates doctrinal appeal to a very secondary role, claiming that most people do not really become very attached to doctrine of their new faith until after their conversion.”3 People join a faith because of positive peer pressure. They experience what the majority does in everyday life and conform to the customs.

The implications of Cialdini’s “social proof” are immense for faith communities. The good news is that people don’t reason their way into a faith as much as they ride social norms. You don’t have to be a brilliant apologist. Jonathan Swift was right—it is useless to attempt to reason a man out of what he was never reasoned into. People don’t respond to reasoned arguments, debates, or worldview any more than “do it for the environment.” The proof is less in logical paradigms and more in lived patterns.

The bad news is that few of today’s faith communities are noted for creating cultural norms in business and commerce. Instead, they create “special religious times,” Willard notes, such as Sunday services, Bible studies, and home groups. It is during this handful of hours each week that the faith is “social proof”—but only for churchgoers. To outsiders, these religious activities look like special occasions rather than social customs.

When the church stopped making shalom, the social proofs that defined reality drifted downward. Forty-nine years ago on this day—November 2, 1960—a landmark obscenity case over D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover ended in the acquittal of Penguin Books. The publisher had been sued for obscenity in publishing an unexpurgated version of the novel. Lady Chatterley’s Lover had been published since 1928—but without the four-letter words and steamy sex scenes in English-language editions. In 1959, the full text was published in New York. The case went to court, and in 1960 the acquittal verdict was handed down. But it wasn’t based on the content of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The verdict was based on cultural norms that had changed between 1928 and 1959.

Christian faith—no matter how enthusiastically proclaimed by evangelists, how ably expounded by theologians and philosophers—cannot be sustained for long without the support of a nurturing culture, writes Robert Louis Wilken, a professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia. Yes, we’re moral creatures. But we’re wired to live as social creatures according to cultural norms. That’s why shalom must once again become central in the church. It’s “social proof.” It’s positive peer pressure.

1 Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1998), p. 260.
2 Rodney Stark, Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome (New York, MY: HarperOne, 2006), p. 13.
3 Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religion in the Western World (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco Edition, 1997), pp. 14-15.


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  1. So what does it mean or look like to foster shalom in a faith community? I hope you explore that in your next essay.

  2. Hi Maria:

    Good news – we did explore that question in a 7-part series: “Why Institutions Matter.” You can find the entire series right here, beginning in the August 2009 columns. It ran from August through October. Hope that helps. If you have more questions, post them here. I’ll reply.

  3. Hmmm. Mike, your argument seems to imply that culture-leading-to-peer-pressure-leading-to-Christians is a good thing. It’s easy to see that it has worked this way, but less easy to see that this pattern has really been beneficial. I think one could make the case that numbers-lead-to-hierarchies-lead-to-faith-as-politics-not-as transformation.

    It seems like most of the advances of the faith came from those willing to challenge their peers: Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Jesus, Paul, etc. While Christians-forming-culture may give institutions that give us more ease and less conflict, I’m not so convinced that the band wagon gives us a better Christianity.

    Perhaps we will always need Christians influencing culture and institutions, but right beside them, we will need our reformers and prophets. Just like Christians can get stuck in a rut of legalism and rules, our cultural establishments can, too. Transformation-revolution-overthrow is as necessary to the establishment as it is in our hearts.

  4. Hi Bruce:

    If you enjoy the benefits of modern medicine and the modern university – to cite but two examples of ancient Christianity building cultural norms – then I’d say these changes were beneficial. If Christians build institutions that go with the grain of the universe (in terms of the way God created these things to operate) then I’d think that hopping on the band wagon would be a good thing (smells like shalom to me). Revolution sounds good on paper – or when you’re the one fomenting it. It often stinks to be on the receiving end, given human nature and it’s propensity toward totalitarianism.

  5. Mike,

    Personally, I think it is unfortunate that people are so thoughtless as to be swayed more by what they perceive to be the norm than by what they think is right, though it is true from my experience.

    Staying with the study of reusing towels iin hotels, my experience is that most of the cleaning staff in hotels are not supporting their own hotel’s policies in this area. Whether it’s not clear to them when a guest is trying to follow the system by hanging up the towel in the wrong place or just because they find it simpler to always replace towels is unclear to me. Regardless, I find that towels are always replaced in most hotels, regardless of how well I try to follow the policies. That shows me that following the policy to reduce washing of towels is a waste of my time, though I tend to do it anyway as the right thing to do. Just because the cleaning staff washes the towels anyway, I am doing what I can.

    I bring this up to point out that many times we have systems set up that are not conducive to completing the plan. Most hotels suggest hanging towels back up when one is willing to reuse them, yet there are no open towel rods on which to hang them. There is not enough wall space to have empty rods and thus clean towels cover the rods and the only place for wet ones is over the curtain rod or on the hook behind the door. My point is that if we want to encourage people to change, we need to adapt our systems to make the change seem appropriate and not an effort that bucks the system.


  6. The moral imperative vs. social norm as motivator comes down to a question of energy. When I attempt to learn a new habit it takes a high degree of intentionality, but what I do subconsciously requires less effort and attention. Since I am mortal and limited, I cannot devote unlimited time and energy to making habits of all the better moral choices that occur to me. So the more my habits, the more my unquestioned assumptions reflect God’s design – the better.

    And I can save my prophetic, revolutionary spirit for the really important issues.

    BTW – it may be a myth, but I have heard that a white font on black background is more eco-friendly, as it uses less electricity. Not sure I’d carry that as far as using a smaller font to save electrons. . .

  7. The part of the towel example that frankly bothers me is that the intended reform is based on a lie. The statement that “most of the people who stayed in this room. . . ” is untrue. They said that this behavior IS not what it OUGHT to be, all in the effort to to encourage e new norm. As a moral leader and a Christian, I do not believe that God’s blessing of shalom can be birthed in a lie; even one that is for a good purpose.
    (also- try pure white on the black instead of the light gray type on black. It’s not as chic but my eyes are having a hard time with the soft contrast!)

  8. Of course, the Roman Emporer Constantine converting to Christianity in the Early 300s didn’t hurt either….

  9. While I agree that we believers should impact the culture, I have difficulty with several of the premises in this post. Perhaps the intent is simply to reinforce the overall emphasis of this blog, which as I understand it is to mobilize believers to leverage contacts with those who have proportionately more social impact to have a greater influence for the gospel. For those who are called to that, fine. However, the message I get from this particular post appears contra-Biblical, sending us down a path devised by social scientists rather than by looking to what God’s word indicates. Therefore, while I must apologize for the long post, I feel compelled to offer a contrary word. Let me be specific.

    First, it appears that one premise upon which the above arguments rest is that the apparent “normative culture” of the Roman Empire that professed Christianity was actually composed of true believers. Without being able to put my hands on specific historical references, I think it would not be unrealistic to infer that the same dichotomy we see today between “cultural affiliation” and “true Christ followers” also existed then, with the latter being a small subset of the former. So I think the premise that the Roman culture was truly “Christian” as we understand it is weak at best. It certainly isn’t the case today that most of those who profess Christianity actually know Christ.

    Second, but on the same premise, I would therefore disagree that the large growth in “Christian culture” in the Roman Empire was equivalent to what we know as “conversions” to true Christ-followers, as the article appears to indicate. So the idea that cultural norms somehow produced true believers in the absence of the declaration of the gospel is simply not accurate, in my view. It produced a social culture influenced by conformity to certain behaviors, much as our country had in the first have of the 20th century, but as we saw in the latter half of that century, the underlying substance was likely quite different from the external appearance.

    Third, I cannot accept that “social peer pressure” has any effeicaciousness in bringing anyone to true faith. As the Bible clearly indicates, faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God. There is no true faith, no entry into the Body of Christ, no salvation, absent the gospel – the recognition and acknowledgement of one’s own sin and inability to satisfy God’s just requirement for atonement, that the atonement price was paid by Christ, and that we come into God’s family through acceptance in trust in that work as our sole means of salvation. At some point, after relationships have been built, trust established, and deeper conversations occurred, the gospel must be proclaimed and accepted. There is no other way by which we can be saved. If we are creating a “Chrisitian-looking’ culture by peer pressure but not Christ-followers through regeneration, all we have is white-washed tombs, to quote Jesus. If we want true conversions, I suggest we look away from the false and faulty claims of “modern social science,” including Stark’s relegation of normative truth to second place, and obey Christ’s clear call to be his witnessess (a witness must testify…you’ve got to say something, and you’ve got to tell the truth).

    Finally, I agree that a nurturing culture is an important element of support for the community of believers, but I believe the Bible is also clear that it is God who sustains true faith by sustaining the individual Christian. The article seems to imply that Chrisitanity cannot be sustained absent a (secular?) culture that is Christian in orientation. I respectfully submit that that is neither sufficient nor effective. The Bible is repleat with historical accounts of how the faithful have dwindled to a mere remnant who were preserved by God in spite of the pagan culture in which they found themselves, and it also clearly teaches that the same will occur as we approach the end of the age.

    Social proof, culture, economics, politics, commerce, etc., no matter how santized or Christian-ized, will never produce believers or sustain the church. The former is accomplished by the proclamation of the gospel (by evangelists, pastors, teachers, and every believer in their spheres of influence), and the latter occurs by the Holy Spirit in the community of local believers. If the premise at the outset were true, then why did the Roman Empire of 50% Christians decline into the dark ages, and why is the true church sustained in the face of persecution over the centuries, including today in cultures antithetical to the gospel? It seems to me that the evidence of both the scripture and observation of life are very different. In fact, the growth of the true church is often accelerated by times of difficutly, not ease, which drive individuals back to God and away from the vices of self-sufficiency, comfort, pleasure, and indulgence that naturally accompany an “easy” life in a fallen world.

    I appreciate the desire not to abandon the “up and outs” of the world as we seek to share Christ. But in our zeal to do so, we should also be careful to stay attuned to what God’s word says about how we are to accomplish this. His overarching desire for eternity is to bring people to Himself, and given His priority for that, He has also given us very helpful, clear, and effective instruction in the Bible that we ignore or de-emphasize in favor of uncritical acceptance of social research at our peril.

    Thanks for considering these thoughts.

  10. “They will know we are Christians by our love.”
    “See how they love one another!” Not only “loving
    one another” creates intrigue and the soil for social
    change but by blessing others (non Believers) with no “payback” in mind.
    If I knew someone was freely donating their time to
    come wash my towels everyday and the money being saved by the hotel was being given to feed the hungry and part of it was coming back to me (lower rates) then I would be compelled to
    value my use of towels in a new way. Behavior would change. The unconditional love would create a crisis in my mind asking “What (or who) is behind this?” Hence fertile ground for shalom.

  11. “Christian faith—…—cannot be sustained for long without the support of a nurturing culture, writes Robert Louis Wilken…”

    The Christian faith has a long history of expanding under persecution, and mixed reults in the good times. I must be missing some context from Wilken.

    I wonder if the Arizona psychologists considered the competitive/guilt aspect of hotel guests. You know, “don’t break the streak in this room . . .”

    These comments are really difficult to read without adjusting my browser.

  12. I think I’ve experienced what Mike is talking about here.

    I do music production/ writing workshops with teens in order mentor them toward their relational, emotional and academic potential. Recently we’ve been working with a group of teens who are very hard to motivate–more than usual–and we’ve tried to activate them in a variety of ways, e.g. hands on experience, inspiring talks, incentives, etc. Last week I read Mike’s words for Nov. 2 and decided to give it a try.

    I challenged the teens by explaining that two other groups of teens in a neighboring city were a couple weeks ahead of them in the same process–which was true–and that if they didn’t pick up the pace and start stepping out their boxes they’re going to get left in the dust of their peers for a final performance that they will all share.

    It was by far our best and most productive session yet. There may be other factors involved here, but I do believe this is a significant insight into how a lot of us actually make decisions.

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