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.