In The Moment: Episode 49

Robert Frank with Steve Scher—How Peer Pressure Can Save The Planet

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In this week’s interview, Robert Frank talks with Chief Correspondent Steve Scher about the power of peer pressure. Robert provides examples of how social influence effects our health, consumerism and our perception of government. Robert and Steve talk about the weight that high positions of power have on our cultural morality, as well as the impact that our neighbors and friends have on our decision-making and general well being. Get an insider’s look and stay in the know about what’s going on in this moment at Town Hall Seattle.


Episode Transcript

This transcription was performed automatically by a computer. Please excuse typos and inaccurate information. If you’re interested in helping us transcribe events and podcasts, email communications@townhallseattle.org.

Welcome to in the moment a town hall Seattle podcast where we talk to folks coming to our town hall stages and give you a glimpse into their topic, personality and interests. I’m your host, Ginny Palmer. It’s 2020 a new year, a new decade, and there are an assortment of new programs on our calendar. We’ve got some great concerts from our global rhythms and town music series, including African drumming and a South American themed classical quartet and a mix of rental and Townhall produced programs. If you don’t know the difference between a rental and town hall produced event, you can find that they are clearly labeled and color coded on our event calendar. Town hall not only produces our own programs with incredible speakers and artists, but it’s also a rental space for other organizations and community partners to bring their own shows and ideas to our stages.

So go ahead and check out what’s up on our calendar. Peer pressure is real. At one time, most of us have done something under pressure from our peers. We might think that this falls mostly into the category of the dumb things we’ve done, but not all peer pressure could help us quit smoking, exercise, go to college, and just maybe it can help us save the planet from the galloping consequences of climate change and his new book under the influence putting peer pressure to work. Economist Robert Frank argues that power of contagion could be put to good use addressing climate change and social justice in one integrated March towards a more optimistic future for the planet. Robert H. Frank is the H J Lewis, professor of management and professor of economics at Cornell university’s Johnson graduate school of management. He has been an economic view columnist for the New York times for more than a decade and his many books include the winner take all society, the economic naturalist and success and luck. Frank is coming to town hall on January 20th at 7:30 PM to talk about harnessing this contagion. He talked to our senior correspondent, Steve, share over Skype.

Thank you for talking to me. You’re very welcome. I have often thought of a contagion that that would save our planet. Would be some terrific virus that will, we’ll, you know, wipe out enough of the people that the life on earth will, will continue. But that’s a horrible scenario. Yeah.

Yeah. That’s one way to do it, but not [inaudible]

The best way maybe no, a better way is to, is to, is to create a, a modeling behavior as you write about that people can see what others are doing as the first step perhaps in, in getting people to change their minds.

Yeah. And I think the, the main point is that the traditional policy instruments we have the, the estimates, the effects of those are, are based on direct responses. So when we put a tax on gasoline, how much less does an individual buy gasoline in response to the fact that it’s now a little bit more expensive. And, and those numbers are fairly small, but what, what they miss is the indirect effects. You know, so the price of gas goes up. I go from a six cylinder to a four cylinder or to a hybrid or to an electric and neighbors see that. I’ve done that. And, and some of them do it too, and then others see them doing it. So you get a huge multiplier. And I don’t think that’s in any of the numbers that people talk about when they consider would it be a good idea to have a carbon tax or some other measure like that?

Well, as an economist, as an environmental economist, why hasn’t that been a more obvious step towards analysis?

That’s a question that I’m just so puzzled by. You know there, there’s really nothing remotely controversial in my book, so, so nobody would blink an eye if you claim that the most important determinant of what someone will do in any given situation is what others like him or her are doing. So you, you’re worried your daughter’s going to smoke. Doesn’t matter if she’s a science fiction buff, it doesn’t matter whether she got A’s in English, you know, none of that counts for anything. What you really need to know is what fraction of her friends smoke. If that fraction goes up, that’s the surest prediction of whether she’ll smoke when the time comes. And so that’s a clear relationship. Nobody disputes how important it is. Much less attention goes to the fact that the social environment itself is a consequence of our own individual choices in the aggregate.

That’s true. But nobody who’s thinking about whether to become a smoker would stop for a moment. We’re all, if I become a smoker, I’ll make others more likely to smoke. That’s the effect I have on the environment. So small that if I were self interested in rational the best bet would be just to not even pay attention to that. But since the social environment has such a strong influence on us, it would be better. That’s for both good and ill. In specific cases, it would be better if we did act as if our effect on the social environment mattered. And, and sure enough, there are very simple noninvasive steps that policymakers can take that would get us to act as if we cared about that. And yet, as far as I can tell there’s been almost no attention at all. And given to that question and why that is. That was your original question. I just have to say, I don’t know. I’m, I’m not the smartest economist out there. How is it that there’s all this low hanging fruit to be picked that smarter economists never picked before? I don’t know the answer to that question.

Well, the only reason I ask is because the, in part, your epigraph example, whether it be good or bad as a powerful influence, this is George Washington in 1780 saying this. And, and I was wondering if for this idea of contagion to, to take hold a positive contagion rather than a negative one, like conspicuous consumption or building bigger houses or building, buying bigger cars, but instead being reducing our footprint because others are doing it and we want to feel a part of that. Do we need honest actors for the concept to work? I mean, do we need the, and I’m being political, do we need the main actor who in, in our country, you know, the George Washington who sits in that chair today to be modeling that behavior for it all to work? Or can we ignore when dishonest people seem to hold sway?

Well, I think it’s very important to be able to discriminate between different role models to be, to be able to make intelligent judgments about who’s example is worth following and who is his best to avoid. And I think you know, it’s very, it’s quite interesting. The, the current president is modeling behaviors that a pretty large majority of the country seems to have indicated a judgment or not worth following. And so you know, the, the fact that he is calling attention to those behaviors and people are talking about why their example is not worth following may have some indirect beneficial effects, but, but much better than that would be to have somebody in the office who is modeling behaviors that we have at all observe and say, yeah, I want to be like that.

Well do you think that nations, nations now can be shifted one way or the other by the modeling behavior of of the people in charge or, or is it, or is this a more is this a more grassroots idea? It at the neighborhood level. I put up a solar panel. My neighbors think, Oh, that looks cool. I’ll do that too.

It works at any scale. It’s, it’s a fractal phenomenon. The physicist would say we take cues for all around, I think a one, one theme in my own work is, is that the local environment has special salience. The, the, the Bertrand Russell quote Springs to mind beggars don’t envy millionaires. They envy other beggars who have a little bit more than they do. We’re, we’re in competition, not with the whole universe, but a very small subset of the universe. And the people who matter most or the people who are most like us. And so I think the example of friends, family, neighbors really does have special force, but, but we know that that other people whose behavior we become aware of matters too.

Well, you write about in this book how the, the contagion of a change in behaviors towards smoking has spread. Did it also spread in the same way? As you write about when when same sex marriage was evolving so quickly in this past, well, in this previous decade? Yeah.

Well, those are two vivid examples of change that happened way more rapidly than anyone would have predicted based on conventional models of behavior. So in the smoking cane what, what we know, and it’s still true, is that quitting smoking is really, really hard. About half of all people who do smoke try to quit in a given year, only about 5% succeed at that. It’s, it’s one of the most addictive substances known to humankind. And so the fact that smoking rates went down over the last several decades, by almost 70%, nobody would have predicted that. And, and it’s true that the policy measures we adopted toward that end were, were critical in making that happen. So unless we attack cigarettes heavily, unless we had told people you couldn’t smoke in buildings, and even in some places in public spaces that wouldn’t have happened anywhere near as quickly as it did.

But what we know too is that the, the process that really mattered was that as some people responded to those incentives, other people became less likely to take up smoking or, or to remain a smoker as a result of having fewer smokers in their peer groups. The, the rationale we gave for those smoking measures was sort of the traditional victims who can avoid harm argument that John Stuart mill would have a favorite. He said, you had, the government shouldn’t tell you you can’t do it. You want to do, unless it’s to prevent harm to others, undue harm to others, he must’ve been. And, and so what we did was we evoked secondhand smoke is the reason we needed to curb smoking. You, you, you’re in the vicinity. Somebody’s smoking, you breathe in the sidestream smoke, you’re injured by that. That’s a classic externalities example.

But the injury from sidestream smoke is incredibly minor. It’s real, but it’s incredibly minor compared to the injury from actually being a smoker. So if you want to want to know what harm I, cause if I become a smoker, it’s not from sidestream smoke, it’s by making others in my circle more likely to smoke. So the best estimate we have on that is if, if your daughters friendship group, if they go from 20% smokers to 30% smokers, she will become about 25% more likely to become or remain a smoker. It’s a huge effect. And except for that, we wouldn’t have seen the, the big change that we did. See the S the second pattern do you asked about? Yes. Was same sex marriage, same sex marriage of course was, was an even more rapid change. Every state, there was a majority of people against it.

Andrew Sullivan wrote a, a very impassioned article in the late eighties, arguing that allowing same sex marriage would achieve many positive goals and wouldn’t cause any harm to anybody. It got people talking. But the, the, the dialogue proceeded fairly slowly after that. It was an important start, but as more and more people began to acknowledge being gay as more and more people knew somebody who was gay, as more and more people said, yeah, I guess it wouldn’t be a problem if people were allowed to marry whomever they chose. And each time somebody flipped on that, that opinion, it made it safer for others to voice the same opinion. The, the thing that keeps people from speaking out often is that they’re a Fe afraid of being marginalized. If all, if I say I approve that people will think ill of me and, and how strong that motive is depends on, on how many people are speaking out. And, and, and we really saw a snowball effect once, once things got going in 2008 2009 during, during the California referendum on same sex marriage, both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were on record as being opposed to that. Then six years later comes the Supreme court decision in 2015. Now more than two Americans in three says, without hesitation, same sex marriage should be approved. And it’s just a, it’s a classic case of behavioral contagion.

Well, of course, as you know, it goes both ways. Do you think that the charge that the, the right wing and Donald Trump are, are normalizing racism, selfishness turning away from open dialogue and the attempt to understand things through facts rather than gut? Do you think this is the same process in reverse? This is a social contagion that could easily sweep us another way?

Yes, and it’s particularly pernicious because there is an asymmetry to some of these influence. So if, if you’re thinking, Oh, I really ought to start jogging or oughta eat less meat, or I ought to do one or another beneficial behavior that I don’t do enough now you, you don’t need license from others to do that you, you, you can do that without fear of being criticized for doing it. It’s true that if you’re amongst people who exercise regularly and who eat prudently, you’ll be more likely to do that. But, but you don’t need social approval in order to take that step if you want to do something that is socially disapproved. It really makes a difference if you can see influential others doing it. It gives you license to, to, to do something that you, you’re worried about whether it’s okay to do.

And so I think the, the hate crime incidents that we’ve seen skyrocket in the last couple of years, the scrawling of swastikas on synagogues, the, the anti gay rhetoric it’s all directly tied to influential commentary coming from high place people in our government. Isn’t it possible that people can be brainwashed, deflected from their own interests to do the right thing? We’ve seen it happen again and again. And, and that’s why the public policy arena is so important. If, if we want to be able to pass the laws that serve the common interests, we’ve got to somehow diminish the role of money in our political process. The, the carbon tax the fact that that could be voted down is, is just the most contradictory fact about the American political system. It’s in everybody’s interest to have a stiff carbon tax. If you wanted to get one enacted I think the most important step to take is to make it revenue neutral.

You know what that means. It means to take all the money that’s collected from the carbon tax and then give it back to the people who paid the carbon tax. Not just revenue neutral, but give it back in a way that favors middle and low income families. The, the only argument against the carbon tax that’s been offered is that it would be a difficult burden for low and middle income households who’ve been struggling under the best of circumstances. We don’t want to put yet another burden on them. If you adopted a revenue neutral carbon tax, where would the revenue revenue come from? What we know is that worldwide, the top 10% of the income distribution consumes half of all the energy. That’s probably not as extreme a split in the U S but the, the wealthy Duke consume disproportionately more energy than others.

So most of the revenue would come from the high end. And if we gave it back in, in monthly rebate checks to low and middle income families a substantial majority of the public would end up getting a check each month that’s bigger than the amount extra they had paid in carbon taxes. The rich people who were, who would be net payers under a scheme like that would be getting the lion’s share of the benefits from cleaning up the environment. So they come out ahead to there’s no issue that they won’t have enough money to buy. Not only everything they need, but everything they might reasonably be said to want. There’s just no argument against implementing a tax like that. So I think the fact that, that we haven’t been able to sell voters on that is an indictment first of the, of the role of money in campaigns, but also of the, of the impoverishment of the political discourse. How, how good of a politician would you have to be to be able to explain to voters that if you vote for this, you’re going to come out ahead.

Well, good enough to overcome the lack of trust in government that has been inculcated in the American culture since Ronald Reagan started talking about.

Yeah, that’s, that’s a hurdle. That’s a hurdle to be sure. But you know, the, the governments around the world, there’s a survey every year that’s done and asked citizens. How do you feel about your government? How do you feel about the level of corruption among officials? How do you feel about the value you get for your tax dollars? And the same eight or 10 countries come out at the very top of the list every year. They’ve got good, honest governments. The citizens seem to recognize that they’re supportive of them. We’re, we’re the lowest on the list of any wealthy country. And, and we’ve created that environment for ourselves by bashing the government. The government’s the problem, not the solution. There are lots of things the government can do that other institutions can’t do nearly as well. And we have been shooting ourselves in the foot by scaring intelligent, hardworking people out of the government arena.

You know, I know some environmental economists who have put their work and faith in getting corporations to honestly tackle the questions around climate change. Not greenwashing it, they hope, but actually real policies that will have real impact. And these are folks from California where there are some laws in place that sort of demand they act much more quickly. But as you say, California goes, so goes the nation, the DS. Do you think that corporate efforts can do the same kind of virtuous signaling that we’re talking about an individuals?

Sure. That can help. Yeah. And I think the fossil fuel industry has been one of the biggest culprits in our failure to enact the kinds of laws we need for dealing with these problems. In Washington state, I believe it was the fossil fuel industry that supplied most of the funds that enabled the anti carbon tax messaging to, to be about twice as well funded as the Protex messaging. So, yeah, and you know, I think the, the, the fossil fuel companies will change when we require them to change. I think we don’t see a whole lot of movement spontaneously coming from that sector, but, but there’s a reason we shouldn’t be passing laws requiring them to behave differently.

Yes. But again, you’re talking about money and politics. I guess I always turned back to pessimism. I mean, your, one of your arguments that you’re making for example, is that let’s get the wealthiest people to see that a little more tax they pay doesn’t really impact their their desires to have the most biggest fastest because what, what do you call it, that that as the demand for that goes down, the price will go down, right?

Yeah, yeah. In the book I, I call the belief held mostly by a well-to-do voters that paying higher taxes will make it harder for them to get what they want. I call that belief. It sounds reasonable, but I call it the mother of all cognitive illusions. It’s a, it’s a manifestly false belief. The, the idea is pretty simple actually. The, the wealthy themselves would be the first to admit that there is no tax proposal on the table that would threaten their ability to buy what they need or what any person might reasonably be said to need. That’s just not one of the possibilities. What are they worried about then? Well, it’s, it’s the, it’s the possibility that if they had to pay more in tax, they wouldn’t be able to buy what they want. The special extras of life, the apartment with a 360 degree view of the, the city in, in, in the sound.

The, the thing they don’t see clearly is that their ability to bid for such things as special, accurate extras. They’re all things that are in short supply. There are never enough of them to go around. In order to get them, you have to outbid other people. Usually people like you who also want them. And to do that to succeed at that the only thing that matters is your relative bidding power and that’s completely unaffected when you and the other people like you all pay more in taxes. You can’t think about it that way. I mean the natural way to think about how higher taxes might affect you would be to try to remember how you felt the last time taxes went up for you. But in the current environment, that doesn’t work because taxes have been going, especially on the top, incomes have been going steadily downward since world war II.

They were 92% during the war, then they fell to two 70% then 50 a they’re 37% is the top tax rate now and and so you can’t think how would higher taxes affect me by remembering the last time they did that too. Cause they haven’t done that to you if you’re alive today. So the plan B that everybody goes to is, well I know higher taxes are going to make me have less income to spend. So I’ll try to think of examples like that. And, and no matter how charmed your life, is there more always be examples in your memory bank of that sort. So you had a bad business year, maybe a health crisis, a home fire, maybe your kid got arrested, you had to hire an expensive lawyer to, to, to handle his case. There, there are things that happen to everyone where income goes down and those, those cases almost always leave very bitter negative memory traces. But there are different from the event that happens when your taxes go up. Those, those other events are events where you’re in. M goes down, but the income of everybody else stays the same and when, when that happens, you really are less successful at being able to bid for those extras that you want. But that’s completely not the case when everybody’s income goes down because you paid a little bit more in taxes.

All right. Let me end with two concepts that you talk about. One, the power of talk and a good conversation you write about in your book. You know I, I’ve spent the last 10 years teaching interviewing at the university of Washington and one of the things we try to do is to talk to people who don’t agree with us but in a way that doesn’t brow beat them but does get them to, to think about what they believe. And you, your quote was experimental evidence in the book also shows clearly that conversation structured in a certain way, have the power to produce large and durable changes in both beliefs and attitudes. What are the structures that need to be in place for that to occur?

What the research consistently shows is that if, if your conversation partner thinks you’re just trying to, to, to get him or her to change his mind about something people dig in and resist when, when Al Gore would describe a new piece of pessimistic climate research that just been published, the people who didn’t believe in climate change would become less likely to believe that it was a problem after hearing that. So, so that’s not a productive conversation obviously, but the one consistent finding that researchers have come up with is that asking the right question seems to open the door to people considering their views. I’ve, I’ve discovered this quite by accident in a couple of issues I, I’ve been very, very concerned about. One was the affordable care act. There were many people who were just deeply angry about one feature of the affordable care act.

And that was the mandate, the, the, the feature of the law that you had to buy insurance. So that was just an overreach of government. They thought the whole act should be repealed, that was so offensive, offensive to them. And you could try to explain using a sophisticated statistical insurance model about why if you didn’t have a mandate that the insurance system wouldn’t be workable that approach was very unlikely to succeed. What, what finally made progress for me in, in those conversations was to have stumbled upon a particular question. And it was, what do you think would happen if the government required fire insurance companies to sell fire insurance at affordable rates to people whose homes had already burned down?

Like about that question doesn’t, it doesn’t take very long to think about that question before. No matter what your beliefs about anything else in the world might be you say quickly, Oh, insurance got these would go bankrupt in short order if the government required that because nobody would buy insurance until his home had burned down. Why would you buy it before that if you could buy it at affordable rates after that had happened? Yes, that’s true. They would go bankrupt. But then you don’t even need to point out that the patient who has a preexisting condition is exactly that guy whose house is already burned down as far as the health insurance industry is concerned. If you can sell insurance at added, at affordable rates to a cancer patient or a a seriously diabetic patient you’re not going to be able to keep your head above water because you know, the services you’re going to have to provide are going to vastly achieve, exceed what you take in in premiums. And so only if everybody has to be in the pool, only a flood that’s a healthy people in the pool. Can you hope to cover the people with preexisting conditions? And, and for someone to discover that on his own makes a huge difference in, in the level at which the idea of will affect him going forward.

Okay. And then therefore translate that into a conversation with people who understand climate change may even by this point be willing to who aren’t denying it and may even see some dangers in their own lives around them, but are still well either, you know, given to pessimism as you write about, or simply are going to be saying, I don’t care because you know, too late, too slow going to cost me money. I can think of a million reasons why people don’t want to act. How do, what’s, what’s the conversation we have with them along these lines? I mean, you quote the woman who says, you know, isn’t this a magnificent thing to be alive in a moment where so much matters, therefore you could argue that Lino, let’s get involved. Let’s pull it together. Let’s build, let’s, let’s build that barn and put on that show like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland used to say, but what’s gonna, what’s gonna get us there in this very polarized era?

Yeah, that’s a great question. And, and I think the w we had our earlier exchange about the carbon tax. I think that’s, that’s a, a nice place to start. You know, a lot of people climate deniers heavily concentrated among them who think all taxation is theft. You shouldn’t tax anything. You, you, you can, I think just write those people off. People who believe that aren’t serious participants in the discussion. You have to tack something. How would you convince somebody that you have to attack something? We all let someone say that all taxes should be voluntary. Then maybe some people would pay them, but, but in short order people would look around and see that their neighbors weren’t paying them and were living better than they were. As a result of that, they’d quit paying and pretty soon there’d be no tax revenue.

You couldn’t have a government. Well, many of these people say good, no government that I’d like that world. But then if you had no government, you’d have no army. And then what would happen? You’d be invaded by a country that had an army and conquered and then you’d end up writing mandatory tax checks to the government that conquered your country. So it’s just a nonstarter to say that you shouldn’t tax anything. The only questions that even makes sense to consider are what should we tax and how much should we tax them. And the, the second question is harder because people can disagree about the scope of the public sector. And, and, and, and we could have a real argument about that, but there shouldn’t be any argument at all about the claim that if you have to tack something far better to techs activities that cause undue harm to others than to tax anything else.

And right now we’re taxing beneficial activities. We tax we tax payrolls at 12 and a half percent that makes corporations less likely to hire people. Why do we want to discourage corporations from doing that? If we had a carbon tax with a suitable rebate scheme, most people would end up as net beneficiaries under it. And every dollar we raise from some other tax on a harmful activity would be $1 less we’d need to raise from the payroll tax or from a tax on savings, which we currently levy. Why should we discourage people from saving, which we do now.

Okay. You are a wrote this book under the influence, putting peer pressure to work in part to not succumb to pessimism. You also say in the book that you know, maybe this might be your last book you got, you got another decade or two or three, but but project for me, if you are not being succumbing to pessimism project for me what you see 10 or even 20 years from now

W we’re at a pivotal moment. I think more, more people are aware now than even six months ago that there really is a serious climate emergency underway. I think the images filtering back to us from Australia have, have, have moved the needle quite a bit on that, on that score. But, but basically we’re at the point now where we, we don’t really need a lot of additional information to get a majority of the people to believe that things are really bad. Most people believe that I’ll read. What I think is missing in the climate conversation is a plausible narrative about how we move forward. Is there anything we can do about this that we’re willing to willing to do or that enough people would be willing to do to offer any reasonable prospect of succeeding? That’s the missing element in the conversation.

With, with this book, I’m trying to persuade people that behavioral contagion will make many of the measures that we could take dramatically more effective than they’re commonly believed to be. That, that the, the investments will need to be, make, could be, will, will, will be, need, needing to make, could be financed with tax measures that wouldn’t require any painful sacrifices at all from the upper income citizens who would be called on to do most of the financing. And so it’s, it’s not as big a a nut to crack as many people seem to think it is. So the behavioral contagion part of the story is an important missing part of the conversation. But I think another, another missing part is, is the, is the set of engineering possibilities that are open to us. If, if you, if you haven’t had solid Griffith out to the town hall yet I strongly urge you to consider inviting him to speak.

He, he outlines a vision of a decarbonized economy that is not hair shirt. It, it, it’s it’s an economy that gets the same activities that we now in done with about half of the net energy expenditure, all almost all renewable energy and a life that actually would look attractive to people if they compare it with a life that most people are leading leading right now. So I think that that part of the narrative needs to be filled in and yeah, I, I, I hope people will take an interest in it. I’m, I’m eager to participate in that conversation and I’m optimistic that we can make some progress.

All right, sir. I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me. Many thanks Steven. Frank will be coming to our forum stage on January 20th at 7:30 PM to talk about his new book under the influence, putting peer pressure to work. If you’d like to hear more from him, check out his Twitter at econ naturalist. Thank you for listening to episode 49 of in the moment. Our theme music comes from the Seattle band, EBU, and Seattle’s own Souk records. If you can’t make it to a show, you can always listen to our town hall produced events on our arts and culture, civics and science series, podcasts to support town hall. See our calendar of events, or to read our blog. Check out our website at town hall, seattle.org on our next episode, our correspondent Eric Milano, we’ll be talking with Peggy Orenstein about boys sex and the new masculinity. Till then. Thanks for joining us right here in the moment.

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