In Join the Club, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Tina Rosenberg (The Haunted Land, 1995) explores a new aspect to the world’s social fabric by focusing on stories of the positive power of peer pressure—from the purposeful stigmatization of teen smoking to an innovative Serbian activist movement that led to the fall of Slobodan Milosevic.
How did you come to write about the transformative powers of peer pressure?
My interest in this phenomenon grew out of the realization that I was starting to write the same story over and over. I had written an article for The New York Times Magazine about South Africa’s successful teen AIDS-prevention program, and then I started on [piece about] a really intriguing group of students at Belgrade University. I realized it was essentially the same story. Both these groups successfully changed people’s behavior by offering them respect and connections to others.
Peer pressure hasn’t traditionally been greeted by the optimism with which you embrace it. How did you start to see peer power as a force for positive change?
You’re right. We usually think about peer pressure as a purely negative force. We call it “peer pressure” when a bad crowd draws our kids into mischief. But if a group of positive friends push our kids into staying in school and accomplishing their goals, isn’t that peer pressure as well? We also tend to see peer pressure as a very powerful force. Anyone with kids knows this. It’s useless to try to combat what a child’s peers tell him. Parents just throw up their hands—the peer group is too strong. But if peer pressure can be a force for good as well as bad, then the very power of the idea is something we can harness to solve problems we could never solve before.
What are the common threads between these movements?
It doesn’t seem like there should be any common threads running through the stories in Join the Club. The people in the book are looking for such different things: control over very personal temptations, academic success, spiritual growth, better health and even the overthrow of a dictator. But they are all trying to reach their goals by harnessing the power of peer pressure. All of them are seeking some sort of behavior change, and they are all doing it by giving people a new peer group to identify with.
What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about peer pressure, and what about those perceptions would you like to see changed?
The big misconception is that peer pressure is a purely negative force. It’s just as strong a force for good. It’s also a powerful tool we can all use to solve difficult problems. There is not a New Year’s resolution that can’t be better kept if we decide to work towards it with others who are doing the same. We need people to give us support and hold us accountable. But peer pressure is useful in a wider way. It’s crucial for creating activists—people who go on to make broad changes in their society.
In the book’s conclusion, you mention that you can now see possibilities everywhere for positive peer pressure to help transform the world. How do you think this idea can be moved forward?
The pioneers in Join the Club did not set out to apply a join-the-club solution to the problems they struggled with. They stumbled into solutions that employed peer pressure. But anyone struggling with a difficult social problem now has an advantage: We know that peer pressure might be useful. We can pick up a seemingly intractable problem and poke at it, and maybe we’ll find a way in. Every story in the book uses strategies that could be applied to myriad other problems.
What was most important for you in telling the stories of the “clubs”—the social-cure organizations profiled in the book?
I was determined to get beyond the basic idea and show readers how these organizations worked. A lot of people who are interested in living better or making a difference in the world are very clear about their end product. They know they want to compete in a triathlon or clean up their neighborhood or end genocide in Darfur. Where they get stumped is what to do tomorrow after breakfast, and the next day, and the next day. It was very important to show how these pioneers accomplished what they did so people can steal their strategies.