Book Review - Under the Influence: Putting Peer Pressure to work by Prof. Robert Frank

10 November 2022

Robert Frank is a professor of Economics and Management at Cornell University, and a New York Times bestselling author and economics columnist.

In ‘Under the Influence: Putting Peer Pressure to Work’ Frank explores how the social environment shapes our behaviour, but also how the environment is reciprocally a product of our behaviour. He discusses how understanding this interaction - the power of social context - can yield insight into our behaviours and inform important policy changes e.g., in health and environment.

Sophie Ainsworth, Strategic Consultant at TBA UK, and Liyan Jiang, Consultant at TBA China, read and discussed the book, and have shared their thoughts in the review below.



What did you perceive was the author’s main message?

The overarching message throughout the book addresses how our behaviour and attitudes are shaped by our environments. In addition, these environments are also a reflection of our own behaviour. Frank uses case studies to argue that we can often take collective steps to promote beneficial contexts and discourage harmful ones. He then highlights how society often fails to consider ‘behavioural externalities’ (actions that affect social environments) within public policy and how behavioural contagions (the spread of behaviour through a group) could be utilised to help bring about change.

What new learnings/research/case studies stood out to you and how might they be relevant to TBA’s work?

SOPHIE:

There are 3 chapters that stood out as particularly relevant for TBA; smoking, eating and drinking, expenditure cascades, and the climate crisis, all of which are full of interesting points and a range of case studies. The case study of smoking features throughout the book and highlights how we sometimes forget to acknowledge how our environments can encourage behaviours. When cigarettes are taxed and banned from indoor spaces, people talk of the damage from second-hand smoke, but they forget the harm that comes from the risk of taking up smoking after being around current smokers (behaviour contagion).

Within the chapter on expenditure cascades, Frank explores the social phenomenon of ‘keeping up with the joneses’ (see our article on this here), the positional arms race and expenditure cascades which can be triggered by conspicuous consumption – he concludes the chapter with possible solutions (such as progressive income tax). One example from the chapter on the Climate Crisis highlights how the probability of a homeowner installing solar panels was strongly influenced by the number of previously installed solar panels in the immediate vicinity. Frank then goes on to explain how public concern around climate change is growing and changing; as flooding and droughts have become more common, people are becoming increasingly sceptical of climate change deniers.

LIYAN:

As a consumer researcher, I often ask myself ‘what is our mission’? Inspired by the central claim from this book “we therefore have a powerful and legitimation public policy interest in encouraging socially beneficial memes and discouraging socially harmful ones”, we can frame our mission by constantly asking how can BeSci explain people’s behaviour, and promote the common good. For example, with sustainable lifestyles becoming a prevailing practice in the consumer world, how can we create new discourse to benefit the environment, inspire enterprises, and empower people in the long run, beyond the current tactics i.e., “protect the earth, so buy less” or “made from 100% recyclable materials”.

Are there any areas that you wish Frank expanded more on or did not address? Were there any weaknesses of the book?

LIYAN:

Although behaviour contagion is the central topic of this book, Frank does not present the theoretical foundation in a systematic way. Instead, he uses numerous case studies that may validate the existence of behaviour contagion, but does not provide a systematic foundational evidence base.

SOPHIE:

A huge portion of the book is spent discussing case studies in detail. While these help to bring the author’s arguments to life, the main message being made by Frank is lost. The methodologies of the case studies are often described in an exhaustive manner which can leave the reader feeling disengaged. On top of this, many of the examples are already well-known and outdated, so the book could have benefited from having less time spent on them. A few examples are also repeated throughout the book, such as the smoking example, and although this does provide continuity it can lead to further disengagement. Finally, many examples are US focused, which can feel challenging to relate to and sometimes complex to understand.

Did you find yourself questioning some points or was there a particular point that stuck out to you?

We found it quite insightful how social context, individual behaviour and outcomes influence one another, and how governments can utilise these learnings when creating public policy.

Frank discusses ‘contagious conversation’, a practical behavioural ‘conversion technique’ useful for influencing policy intervention e.g., mitigating environmental pollution. In the chapter Ask, don’t tell, Frank explores the technique and logic behind the "conversion technique" strategy in detail, including; active questioning, well-posed questions, deep canvassing, temporal framing and moral foundations theory etc. This strategy can prevent policy failures resulting from unintended side effects that occur instead of deliberate choices.

There were two additional themes that stuck out in the book, which looked at trust and free will. Frank discussed the power of behavioural contagion in the domain of trust and morals, where people feel resentment towards those who break the rules at their expense. Once people realise that others get away with cheating (such as tax evasion), explosive feedback processes can then take place and weaken people’s inclination to play by the rules.

Frank also discusses the concept of free will and how many laws are grounded on the understanding that people are fully responsible for their choices and actions. He introduces the debate around whether people have full free will - could genetic and environmental factors outside of the individual's control determine behaviour? He develops this point to highlight the implications for policymaking.

Would you recommend it for TBA? Is it essential reading?

LIYAN:

There are many interesting case studies with applied BeSci theories in this book. It demonstrates that these theories are useful in every aspect of life, not only limited to marketing, but also political and social issues. However, it seems a bit jumpy and takes some effort to digest, as the author includes a lot of references. It would be helpful if you already have a background in basic BeSci and social psychology.

SOPHIE:

The book is full of great behavioural case studies and examples which would make it an interesting read for someone at TBA, but not an essential one. It is often not directly relevant and many of the behavioural science concepts that are referred to will not be new for TBA.

***

Big thanks to Liyan and Sophie for reading Under the Influence and for sharing their thoughts.

For a shorter read, you can check out this article and interview with Robert Frank giving you another bit of insight into the book here.


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