Skip to content, or skip to search.

Skip to content, or skip to search.

Group Think

Illustration by Dienstelle 75  

This operatic theorizing sometimes works: An astute thinker connects the dots in a way that brilliantly rearranges our understanding of the world. More often, though, the dots get connected à la the apocryphal Texas Sharpshooter—the swaggering guy with the big guns who shoots up the side of a barn, then draws a target around the bullet holes. Yet no matter how post hoc or ad hoc or entirely hoc-less these theories might be, their popularity persists. They sell like hotcakes, assuming hotcakes still sell that way. And their success exerts a steady pressure on would-be club members: to generate ideas so relentlessly one-size-fits-all that they require a Procrustean remaking of reality.

You would think that Rosenberg would be impervious to this pressure. If Communism teaches us anything, after all, it’s to be careful of what we sacrifice on the altar of universalizing theories. But here she is, an improbable Pangloss, writing about her Big Idea. “Can there be social change in five minutes a day?” Yes! “If a new peer group could do this [transform the life of a poor Indian woman], what could it not do?” Nothing! When it comes to the social cure, Rosenberg writes, “Few major societal ills … are immune.”

I appreciate the point she’s trying to make. There are positive, powerful, overlooked uses of peer pressure, many of them convincingly documented in her book. But I wish Rosenberg didn’t feel the need to make her point a line. Solutions are not one size fits all—they are, in fact, maddeningly bespoke. That’s because neither problems nor people are fungible. Rosenberg is a brilliant reporter, but here she exhibits the characteristic blind spot of the blind-spot-obsessed Big Idea books. Like totalizing religious or political stories, these books promise to hand over the master key that will unlock our lives. Or, more precisely, they tell us that we have had the key all along, but that we have been holding it upside down.

To which I say: key-shmey. There is no rule, process, peer group, leader, or best seller that can absolve us of the responsibility of thinking our way through life on our own two feet. What irks me most about this infinite parade of gigundo solutions isn’t their glibness or even the borderline theology (of some) and borderline Babbitry (of others) involved in promising audiences easy, happy, profitable ideas. Nope. What irks me is that when you rigidly apply grand theories to everybody, sooner or later everybody feels like nobody, whether you’re in Communist Belgrade or the local DMV. There is a reason we call such systems soul-crushing: They ignore or annihilate individual difference and inner life.

Witness the curious absence of inner life in Join the Club. Rosenberg weighs one kind of peer pressure against another, but for eons, the question people have asked of such pressure is not which kind but how much: How should societies strike the balance between autonomy and conformity? Getting that balance wrong can be catastrophic. The individual unrestrained by his culture is the Unabomber. The culture unrestrained by its individuals is the Third Reich.

And yet, in Rosenberg’s book, half of this balancing act—the self—is nowhere to be seen. I suppose if you’re touting social conformity as the cure to the world’s woes, the last thing you want is to render people less susceptible to it by encouraging them to develop a conscience. But I also detect the insidious influence of the Big Idea books, whose grand theories of humanity often wind up simplifying, ignoring, discounting, or occluding many of life’s complexities, including human individuality.

Two final things. First, I promise not to expand this grand unifying theory about grand unifying theories into a book. Second, I’m hugely sympathetic to the impulse to explain ourselves, including to explain ourselves with reference to our peers. We are bound to society the way we are bound to biology, in ways both known and unknown. But the bonds are slack, and the “unknown” (including almost everything about the human mind) matters. Gregarious, solitary, predictable, idiosyncratic, rigid, creative, fundamentally very confusing: Those are human beings as we recognize them from, you know, life. It’s not always clear how to square the inner world with the outer one, the shared humanity with the outrageous particularity. It’s not even always clear how to keep them on the same page. But Big Idea authors should take heart; it is possible. Novelists do it all the time.

Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World
By Tina Rosenberg.
W.W. Norton & Co. $25.95.