Marie-Josée (MJ) Salvas Shaar, MAPP '07, CPT, has studied, tested, coached, and taught smart health habits for over 13 years. Combining positive psychology with fitness and nutrition, she created a coaching method that builds better sleep, food, mood, and exercise habits, as described in her book, Smarts and Stamina: The Busy Person's Guide to Optimal Health and Performance, which includes 50 practical health-building activities. Today MJ gives keynotes for corporate wellness programs and offers continuing education for wellness professionals, who can license her Smarts and Stamina Online program. Full bio. MJ's articles are here.
Do you remember the anxiety of being picked last for the basketball team in phys ed? Or the pressure of doing an oral presentation right after the coolest kid in English class? Of course you do! Such events threatened your fundamental need to belong, and so they impacted you deeply at the time they happened.
The desire to fit in is a powerful shaper of behavior. In some cases, social pressures serve us well. Just think that 20 or 30 years ago, the following behaviors were not only commonplace, but widely accepted: smoking in public places, drinking and driving, littering, riding in a car without a seat belt, riding on a motorcycle without a helmet, having and unprotected sex.
I’m so glad things have changed!
In other cases, social pressures are lagging behind. Take the following list of examples, which are still widely accepted but need to go out the window, and fast.
- Sleep: We still glorify sleep deprivation as if it were a sign of being needed, successful, and irreplaceable. But in reality, when I hear someone brag about his or her sleep debt, what I hear is “I am temporarily and reversibly mentally impaired, but I’m too groggy to realize it.”
- Food: We still think it’s OK to twist people’s arms so that they eat something unhealthy or eat past satiation. “Come on, just one piece of brownie won’t kill you!” We all have a hard enough time all on our own resisting temptations, thank you very much. What we need is someone to applaud our self-discipline, not a guilt trip about not eating like a Sumo.
- Mood: Few ignore how pervasive, contagious, and detrimental stress can be, yet we all sink in our seats when someone spreads unnecessary stress around. No one benefits when we let others dump their garbage around as they please, so why are we still silent?
- Exercise: A New York Times research summary by James Vlahos suggests that sitting is the new smoking. An occasional trip to the gym doesn’t make up for hours hunched over in a chair, any more than jogging makes up for smoking a pack of cigarettes. There’s new research coming out every month about the dangers of our sedentary lifestyles. See this Washington Post infographic for one example. Yet social convention pressures us into spending long days participating in endless meetings without daring to request a chance to refresh our minds and bodies through a little healthy movement.
How can we start shifting things so that the unhealthy norms just listed can become a thing of the past, much like smoking in public places and drinking and driving did?
Most people are willing to change when they see a clear personal benefit in the proposed change, and when they are convinced that those around them are implementing the change as well, says the World Bank.
In general, we have the first portion of that equation covered: most people understand that sleeping enough, eating well, and moving more will help them be at their best and avoid undesirable health conditions. Our challenge lies not in promoting individual reasons for change, but in challenging what’s considered normal social behavior, and in defining new norms.
Let’s consider 2 examples where social pressure was used successfully in implementing healthier norms.A North Carolina program aimed at preventing teenage pregnancy used the tagline Talk to Your Kids About Sex. Everyone else is. This message created a tension that became more uncomfortable then the uncomfortable conversation itself. What parents would want their children to be the only ones uninformed about important issues that affect people their age? The phone survey conducted by Durant and colleagues found that parents who had been exposed to this campaign were more likely to talk to their teens about sex the next month.
In another experiment, Schultz and colleagues looked at the influence of social norms on household energy consumption. Households that were consuming under the average for that area received feedback along with a happy face, conveying social approval of their energy use. Those that were consuming above average received their feedback with a sad face, conveying disapproval of their higher footprint. In the following months, the over-consuming households reduced their energy use while the under-consuming households kept their usage levels unchanged.
These 2 experiments suggest that social norms can be effective motivators for behavior change, and I’d like to explore how to use them for the greater good. If you are concerned that following others is a shallow extrinsic motivation that won’t last, let me remind you that the desire to fit in is a powerful intrinsic motivation, and that’s what I’m trying to tap into here. Plus, healthy behaviors help us feel good. Once they are in place, they are often self-reinforcing.Creating Positive Pressures in Your Organization
If you’d like to experiment with social pressure as a behavioral change motivator, be careful not to state that the behavior you’re trying to extinguish is the current norm. For example, a campaign declaring “We’re all eating very large portions around here. Let’s reduce them,” would reinforce the social acceptability of overeating, and your efforts would backfire. Instead, make the desired behavior center stage: “We’re all trying to eat less. Let’s help each other out.”
With that in mind, here are a few suggestions to address the pet peeves I have identified above:
- Sleep: Host a lunch and learn about the importance of sleep and encourage your participants to respond to those who brag about their sleep deprivation with an equally boastful statement about how well they slept lately, and how refreshed and energetic they feel as a result.
- Food: A lot of good eating intentions are sapped by the sugary snacks brought to the break room by well meaning colleagues who didn’t want to eat a whole batch of cookies on their own. Tom Rath suggests throwing away our extras rather than taking them to work. Perhaps you could talk to your colleages and agree on a new norm, such as “If it’s not healthy enough for you, it’s not good enough for your colleagues either.” Or perhaps you could start a group competition to see who can tweak favorite recipes to make them “a tad lighter in calories and/or richer in healthy nutrients,” as we describe in the Be Sneaky chapter of the Smarts and Stamina book.
- Mood: Here’s a statistic worth sharing, and which can put a little pressure on the energy vampires at your organization. According to a short article by Cross and Thomas, 90% of anxiety at work is created by 5% of one’s network. Share this information again and again, until everyone in the organization is familiar with it, so that everyone takes a good look in the mirror (whether they do so out of their own initiative, or whether someone else puts the mirror right in front of them). David Pollay’s book has some great ideas to help people stop being energy vampires themselves and to help them buffer themselves against garbage from others.
- Exercise: Meeting leaders will often start things out by explaining why the group has been gathered together. Very often, that statement is followed by a question: “Does that sound good to everyone? Anything else you’d like to add?” Here’s your opportunity to add a little social pressure. “Sure, and I’d like us to make sure everyone is contributing to the best of their ability throughout the meeting by allowing everyone to stand up/to enjoy a stretching break each hour.” Ta-da! Tough to say no to that!
Before I go, let me clarify: I am not suggesting that we ostracize those who adopt or even promote unhealthy behaviors. But I would like to see more of us skillfully and empathically use social pressure to reject behaviors we know to be harmful, and thus craft healthier norms for everyone. In other words, I’d rather ruffle a few feathers if need be and press our norms to evolve than maintain a status quo we now know to be blatantly outdated.
Berkowitz, B. & Clark, P. (2014, Jan. 20). The health hazards of sitting. Washington Post Health and Science.
Cross, R. & Thomas, R. (no date). Managing Yourself: A Smarter Way to Network. Harvard Business Review.
DuRant, R.H., Wolfson, M., LeFrance, B., Balkrishan, R. & Altman, D. (2006). An evaluation of a mass media campaign to encourage parents of adolescents to talk to their children about sex. Journal of Adolescent Health 38 (3): 298–309. Abstract.
Pollay, D. (2012). The Law of the Garbage Truck: How to Stop People from Dumping on You. Sterling Press.
Rath, T. (2013). Eat Move Sleep: How Small Choices Lead to Big Changes. Arlington, VA: Missionday.
Schultz, P. W., Nolan, J. M., Cialdini, R. B., Goldstein, N. J., & Griskevicius, V. (2007). The constructive, destructive, and reconstructive power of social norms. Psychological Science, 18(5), 429–434.
Shaar, M.J. & Britton, K. (2011). Smarts and Stamina: The Busy Person’s Guide to Optimal Health and Performance. Philadelphia, PA: Positive Psychology Press.
Vlahos, J. (2011). Is Sitting a Lethal Activity? New York Times Magazine.