Group Think

Illustration by Dienstelle 75Photo: Danny Kim/New York Magazine

If I had the money, I would send Tina Rosenberg on an all-expenses-paid trip to Cairo. Here’s why: Back in 1987, the MacArthur Foundation, which does have the money, awarded her a “genius” grant. Rosenberg used it to research and write an excellent book, Children of Cain: Violence and the ­Violent in Latin America. Afterward, she turned her attention to Eastern Europe and to the moral, political, and ethical difficulties of apportioning guilt and innocence in post-Communist nations. The resulting book, The Haunted Land, possesses a rare combination of nuance and force. It also possesses a rare combination of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

Rosenberg has thoughtfully tracked the difficult transition to democracy on two continents, and I’d love to hear her reflect on the current turmoil in the Middle East. But it turns out she had other plans. “Problems were in endless supply,” she writes in her new book. “But it was starting to seem more interesting and valuable to write about solutions.”

That new book—Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World—is, to put it mildly, an unlikely third act. The Haunted Land concerned not just the madness of tyrants but the complicity of the masses—all those “card-carrying members” of one of the most catastrophic clubs in history. So why is Rosenberg suddenly championing the virtues of being a joiner? Because, she says, she stumbled on something called “the social cure”—a panacea so powerful that it can help you quit smoking, lose weight, escape poverty, ace calculus, combat Islamic terrorism, overthrow a dictator.

That sounds promising, assuming Utopia is your thing. But it also sounds odd. As readers will remember from their D.A.R.E. days, peer pressure is better known for less salutary effects: We drop acid, wear jeggings, turn a blind eye when our neighbors are dispatched to the Gulag. Rosenberg’s response to this is homeopathic: We should fight bad peer pressure with good. Accordingly, she showcases situations where social conformity produces positive results. South African teens practice safe sex. Minority college students improve their grades. Serbian citizens bring down a despot. Members of a megachurch befriend their neighbors and grow closer to God.

Rosenberg’s readers will presumably find these outcomes largely laudable. So do I. But there’s something discomfiting about them, and it’s not just that giving up cigarettes is up there with ousting dictators and skinniness is next to godliness. Once you burn off a lot of definitional fog, the “social cure” reveals itself as nothing more than peer pressure applied toward ends that Rosenberg supports. That raises a question that, bafflingly, she never addresses: Who gets to decide what constitutes acceptable peer pressure? Your idea of a good peer group might be my idea of a cult. Your worthy goal might be my worst nightmare. Rosenberg cherry-picks positive outcomes, but the process she describes as “the social cure” is fundamentally neutral—equally useful to ­Samaritans and to Stalin.

How did someone as smart as Rosenberg miss this? Specifically, how did she wind up coining a catchy name for an everyday phenomenon whose benefits she overstates and whose demerits she overlooks? The answer, as Zen masters like to observe, lies within the question. Rosenberg, too, yielded to peer pressure and joined a club: the club of the Big Idea book.

Big Idea books have been around for a long time; see The Communist Manifesto. But the Big Idea Book Club (I mean “club” as Rosenberg defines it: an identifiable in-group with enough status to influence the behavior of others) is a recent phenomenon. Its accidental founder and president in apparent perpetuity is Malcolm Gladwell. Its membership, like the membership of most powerful groups, is largely male. Its combined sales are stratospheric; whatever these books are hawking, we can’t stop buying it.

As for the books themselves, I’ll generalize (as, often, do they). Big Idea tomes typically pull promiscuously from behavioral economics, cognitive science, and evolutionary psychology. They coin phrases the way Zimbabwe prints bills. They relish upending conventional wisdom: Not thinking becomes thinking, everything bad turns out to be good, and the world is—go figure—flat. (With Gladwell’s Blink, this mania for the counterintuitive runs top-speed into a wall, crumples to the ground, and stares dizzily at the little birds circling overhead. This is, let me remind you, a best-selling book about the counterintuitive importance of thinking intuitively.)

Before I get any further, let me say this: I am very much in favor of books that contain ideas. (And, full disclosure, I wrote a book that fits some of the above criteria.) What troubles me about the Big Idea Book Club is the way ideas often slide toward ideologies—grand unifying theories of culture, cognition, happiness, talent, the Internet, the future, you name it. “The Hidden Side of Everything,” “The Story of Success”: the italics are mine, but the emphasis is theirs.

Illustration by Dienstelle 75Photo: Danny Kim/New York Magazine

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.

Group Think