Monday, August 25, 2008

Newsflash: Peer Pressure affects diet, alcohol consumption

[Note: This week’s Haveil Havalim is here.]

I love those studies that make you scratch your head and say, “And just how much did you spend on this?”

Yes, I know that sometimes we need the proof that comes with statistical analysis, and sometimes a study does provide refined insight… but please don’t tell me that the overall findings in these tautological studies are "surprising":

People without job training or experience
earn lower salaries!
Film at 11!

Popular people tend to be invited to more parties,
studies show

Well, here’s one fresh out of the Inbox: Part Of The In-group? A Surprising New Strategy Helps Reduce Unhealthy Behaviors.

The article explains, “Authors Jonah Berger (University of Pennsylvania) and Lindsay Rand (Stanford University) found that linking a risky behavior with an "outgroup" (a group that the targeted audience doesn't want to be confused with) caused participants to reduce unhealthy behaviors.

So, in other words: To avoid being associated with a certain group, I won’t act like the members of that group.

Didn’t we all learn this back in high school?

Here’s one study they ran: “Students on their way to a campus eatery were surveyed about perceptions of the media. A control group read an article about politics and pop culture, and a second group read an article associating junk-food eating with online gamers (an "outgroup"). When research assistants observed the two groups ordering food, they found that the group who had read the article about online gamers made healthier choices.

Right – The geeks eat junk food, I don’t want to be called a geek, so I won’t eat junk food. Thank you, U of P and Stanford, for clarifying that point for me. (Apologies to on-line gamers; this was not my study.)

In truth, there is one pedagogic point I should make, and I would have loved to see the study examine this:

The study's method is a negative reinforcement technique, preying on people’s fear of being despised. It’s the equivalent of telling your child, “Don’t wipe your nose on your sleeve; only low-class people do that.”

Far better – and more effective, I would hope - to choose a positive reinforcement technique: “You know, respectable people use tissues.”

Avot d’Rabbi Natan records regarding Aharon haKohen: Aharon would make sure to greet everyone warmly and inquire after their welfare. Then, one those people were faced with opportunities to sin, they would resist the temptation – because they wanted to be the type of person worthy of being greeted by Aharon haKohen.

Yes, I’d prefer the positive – Link healthy behavior with the in-group, and watch how people flock to it.

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