We humans irrationally think we’re rational. We think that we decide how to behave by weighing the pros and cons. In reality, the strongest influence on our decisions is the example of the people around us — even, oddly enough, when they are imaginary.
Like most universities, Northern Illinois University in DeKalb has a problem with heavy drinking. In the 1980s, the school was trying to cut down on student use of alcohol with the usual strategies. One campaign warned teenagers of the consequences of heavy drinking. “It was the ‘don’t run with a sharp stick you’ll poke your eye out’ theory of behavior change,” said Michael Haines, who was the coordinator of the school’s Health Enhancement Services. When that didn’t work, Haines tried combining the scare approach with information on how to be well: “It’s O.K. to drink if you don’t drink too much — but if you do, bad things will happen to you.”
That one failed, too. In 1989, 45 percent of students surveyed said they drank more than five drinks at parties. This percentage was slightly higher than when the campaigns began. And students thought heavy drinking was even more common; they believed that 69 percent of their peers drank that much at parties.
But by then Haines had something new to try. In 1987 he had attended a conference on alcohol in higher education sponsored by the United States Department of Education. There Wes Perkins, a professor of sociology at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Alan Berkowitz, a psychologist in the school’s counseling center, presented a paper that they had just published on how student drinking is affected by peers. “There are decades of research on peer influence — that’s nothing new,” Perkins said at the meeting. What was new was their survey showing that when students were asked how much their peers drank, they grossly overestimated the amount. If the students were responding to peer pressure, the researchers said, it was coming from imaginary peers.
The “aha!” conclusion Perkins and Berkowitz drew was this: maybe students’ drinking behavior could be changed by just telling them the truth.