The Angry Crowd, Freakonomics, and Doubt: Genuine Seeker (Part 7)

Why do I doubt peer pressure

The Angry Crowd (This Really Happened)

Imagine you’re sitting in class with thirty-five other people on a Friday. It’s late afternoon and before your instructor dismisses you and your fellow students, he makes an announcement. He warns everyone to avoid downtown this weekend, because there’s a large (we’re talking hundreds of thousands) pro-life demonstration occurring there.

But just as soon as he says the words “pro-life,” there’s an overwhelming eruption in the classroom. It seems every student stands up from their chair and jeers and boos and hollers against the pro-lifers. You’re new to the group and their reaction takes you completely off guard. You’re shaken–because you’re pro-life.

From the moment the class booed and hissed at the notion of a pro-life demonstration, it felt almost impossible for you or anyone else to voice a pro-life point of view. The derision in the room was palpable.

Like most people, you like to think of yourself as independent and unconstrained by the thinking of people around you. But you’re sitting next to a good friend who knows you’re pro-life. And in the moments following the contemptuous crowd reaction you find yourself hoping he doesn’t say anything to tip off your sentiments.  You’re hoping he doesn’t say anything because of fear. You fear the intense disapproval of your classmates. You fear you’ll be shunned. You even begin to doubt your convictions about your pro-life beliefs–how could so many people be so passionate about something, yet be wrong?

Social Pressure and Doubt

The story about the class reaction really happened. It happened to me. I was at the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Maryland. The demonstration was at the National Mall in Washington D.C. In our last post we touched on how social pressure can cause doubt. (See Bill Nye vs. Ken Ham) In this post we’ll further explore the effects of social pressure on doubt.

I was surprised at my response to my classmates’ reaction. I never would have guessed I would have felt the way I did, but I did. I felt overwhelmed. I really did fear their disapproval. And I really did wonder about my own convictions.

Turns out, that’s normal.

Maybe you’ve had similar feelings to what I felt at the Fire Academy. Maybe you felt embarrassed by a Christian friend’s awkward attempts at evangelism. Or maybe you feel embarrassed by your parent’s unbridled enthusiasm for Duck Dynasty. Or maybe you’re embarrassed by a Christian friend who likes to argue creation theory with secular scientists. Well there’s a reason you feel that way.

You feel that way because of the surrounding social norm.

Freakonomics and Green Grass

I love listening to Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt’s podcast called Freakonomics. They meld economic theory with all kinds of issues and questions. (Levitt is an economics professor at the University of Chicago.) They did a podcast once about social influence called Riding the Herd Mentality.

It turns out we all think of ourselves as independent and unconstrained by the thinking of those around us. We like to think peer pressure was taken off the table the day we graduated high school. But the reality is adults are hugely influenced by the people around them. Here’s an example.

In the Odessa area of Texas there was a severe drought for several years. In 2011 two of the reservoirs the area depended on, dried up completely. The last remaining reservoir was projected to dry up by the end of 2012. So the cities in that area implemented restrictions on watering. They tried all kinds of things to get people to comply. One effort involved a map of the area shaded with green and brown. The darker green your house was on the map, the more water you used. The darker brown your house was on the map, the less water you used. When the maps were distributed they thought people with green houses on the map would use less water because they’d see that they were exposed, but that’s not what happened.

What happened was people did whatever the people around them did. If the people around them had houses on the map that were greener than theirs, they watered more. If the people around them had houses on the map that were browner than theirs, they watered less. This pattern occurred irrespective of anyone’s feelings about the environment or conservation. People simply succumbed to the social norm. (It’s a great podcast, you might want to give it a listen.)

Everywhere a Sign and the Social Norm

There’s a professor of psychology and marketing at Arizona State University named Robert Cialdini. He’s an expert on the topic of influence. In fact he wrote a great book about influence called Influence: The Psychology of PersuasionCialdini put together a study one time that involved energy consumption in San Diego, California. In the study he used four different signs to try to persuade people in San Diego to conserve energy in their home. One sign asked them to conserve for environmental reasons. A second sign asked them to conserve to save money. A third sign asked them to conserve to preserve resources for future generations. And then there was a fourth sign. The fourth sign simply said, “The majority of your neighbors are regularly undertaking efforts to reduce energy in their homes. Please follow.”

Then they measured their energy use. Only one sign made a significant difference. I’m sure you can guess which one. It was the fourth one.

And here’s the kicker: The study included a survey asking people to rank the signs in the order they thought they would be most effective. People said, the sign least likely to effect their energy consumption was the fourth sign, the one stating their neighbors were undertaking efforts to reduce energy.

Cialdini says, “What those around us are doing powerfully influences what we choose to do next, even though we tend to think of ourselves as free standing entities immune to the blandishments of information and evidence from those around us. (But) no. We are powerfully influenced.”

Social Norm: For Better or for Worse

The actual process of establishing a social norm is really niether good nor bad, it’s neutral. What’s not neutral is how the social norm influences. If it’s influencing you in a positive way, for constructive behavior, for truth, then it’s good. If a social norm is influencing you in a negative way, for destructive behavior, or to accept a lie, then of course it’s bad.

One thing is certain, the social norm is powerful.

Powerful enough to increase faith.

And powerful enough to create doubt.

Who Should I Surround Myself With?

The social norm around you is real and powerful. So who you surround yourself with will be one of the largest determining factors in who you become. And that statement begs the question: Who is the ultimate example of who you want to become?

For me the ultimate example of a human being is Jesus Christ. So I try to surround myself with people who will create a social norm of pursuing after him, a social norm of surrendering the self to Him, a social norm of conforming to his likeness.

One example of surrounding myself with such people occurred after the booing and jeering in the Fire Academy class. I could hardly believe what one man did that day. In the face of all that hollering and heckling, a lieutenant from Seattle Fire Department stood up in the middle of class and said, “Now wait a minute.” (The class went silent.) “Obviously all of you are pro-choice,” he said. “But some people think the “choice” comes when a person decides whether or not to have sex. That’s their opinion. They have a right to that opinion. And it should be respected.”

For the rest of my stay at the Fire Academy, I spent a lot of time with that lieutenant. And I ignored my instructor’s warning. I went to the National Mall in Washington D.C. and hung out with believers at that pro-life demonstration.

It was faith building.

So when we choose who to surround ourselves with, we must choose those who will create the social norm we believe God would have us dwell in.

Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming.

Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. Ephesians 4:14-15


Robert B. Cialdini PhD, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion

Stephen Dubner, Riding the Herd Mentality Podcast

Albert Mohler, Rethinking Secularization: A Conversation with Peter Berger

Brian Borsari, Kate B. Carey, Syracuse University, Peer Influences on College Drinking

Anthony Lising, School of Educatoin, Stanford University, The Influence of Friendship Groups on Intellectual Self-Confidence and Educational Aspirations in College

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4 Comments on “The Angry Crowd, Freakonomics, and Doubt: Genuine Seeker (Part 7)

  1. Pingback: Church: If the earliest Christ followers didn’t do church the way we do today, why should I? | God Running

  2. Pingback: Charles Manson, Books, and Christ: Genuine Seeker (Part 8) | God Running

  3. Powerful. I love what you’re doing Kurt. I slip in and out of them at work as time allows but always so powerful and very well written. And as always, I know you’ll step aside and give credit where credit is due.

  4. This scripture says it all. The truth of the herd mentality can be found in the world, but as you point out through this scripture the social norm can be found in any congregation of believers through every wind of doctrine. But what begs the question is where we are in our understanding of what our Savior said, just what is His teaching?

    As babes our understanding is minuscule. As young adults we start to think for ourselves and gather lots of data from every walk of faith as we rub shoulders in the world and in the church, but now peer pressure sets in and the influence is strong so some don’t feel comfortable standing out in opposition. It is when we “mature” that we can make healthy choices providing we mature in Messiah and take the stand He took, walk the walk He walked, and honor the Father as He did, and stand for righteousness in the face of opposition even under penalty of death or simply dying to ourselves, as He did. 1 John 2 shows this picture very well of maturing. Yet sadly some never mature into the “father” stage.

    If we don’t take a stand for righteousness, then who? If we don’t live it and show it, then who? One man, the lieutenant, made a difference in your life just by phrasing a question in a very different manner. Praise Yah for that one person who changed your direction and caused the “fear” of standing against the world’s social norm to vanish. Sometimes we have to learn to swim in the opposite direction of the school of fish when they’re headed in the wrong direction, though they truly believe the opposite.

    All of heaven is behind the one who lives for, and follows, Messiah. Yet sometimes in doing so we may become a casualty for the cause of truth. That is why Messiah said, “Do not give that which is holy (the sacred thing) to the dogs, and do not throw your pearls before hogs, lest they trample upon them with their feet and turn and tear you in pieces”. (Matthew 7:6) That just recently happened to me, and it hurts! But it was good that you didn’t challenge the majority that day. The lesson is do not give what is precious to those who do not appreciate the value!

    If that herd is swine, then we must search out the sheep who know His voice and make sure we are following The Shepherd and not the one who looks and sounds like the Social Norm Shepherd for ye shall know this one by its snout. If we follow every wind of doctrine we may inherit the whirlwind.

    I’m so glad you found the right sheep, the Seattle lieutenant who led you back to the right Shepherd, which led you to the right pasture of social norm for those who believe, and it built up your faith! Great lesson!

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