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Feeling the Pressure

How We Want to be Perceived Influences How We Act

This story was originally published by Knowable Magazine
By Bob Holmes

How we want to be perceived influences how we act, and that presents persuasion opportunities. But the social factors involved are not easy to unravel.

Humans are social beings, and many of the choices we make in our lives happen in a social context, with neighbors, friends and family judging our decisions. How does this social pressure affect the choices we make about what to buy, whether to vote, or what political views we hold? Leonardo Bursztyn, a behavioral economist at the University of Chicago, has focused his research on exploring the complexities of that question.

Bursztyn describes what he and others have learned from real-world experiments on social pressure and behavior in a 2017 article he coauthored in the Annual Review of Economics, “Social Image and Economic Behavior in the Field: Identifying, Understanding, and Shaping Social Pressure.”

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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How do you study social pressure?

The approach I’ve been taking is to use field experiments to identify the effects in a natural setting. One type of manipulation I’ve been using is to randomize whether or not someone’s action is visible to others. The first paper I wrote with this approach, we were interested in understanding whether kids felt pressure to avoid making educational investment because they didn’t want to signal they were uncool or that they were nerds. We did an experiment in which high school students in a low-income setting in Los Angeles were offered free access to a $200 prep course for the SAT [a standard college entry examination]. We randomized so that some kids expected their decision to be completely private, and others believed their classmates could find out their decision. You see a big decrease in the likelihood that they’ll take the offer when their decision is public, which would have to be explained by their concern about their classmates finding out.

If kids are avoiding some opportunities in school because of peer pressure, why are they doing it? What type of image are they trying to portray to their classmates? Are they trying to signal that they’re cool, and that’s why they don’t need to study, or are they trying to signal that they’re smart, and that’s why they don’t need to study? If you think there’s a stigma associated with not being smart, that leads to certain policy recommendations. If you think that the stigma is something like “too cool for school, school is lame,” then it leads to different policy implications. In fact, both reasons are important, though for different groups of students. So beyond showing there is an effect, understanding the mechanics, the underlying reasons, is also important.

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