Lessons Learned


A Join-the-Club strategy is an attempt to help people change their behavior by giving them a new peer group to identify with.  This behavior change may itself solve a problem, or it may be used to create catalysts for action on a wider scale.

The stories in Join the Club show the scope of problems this strategy – which I call the social cure — has successfully attacked.  They range from intimate issues of addiction or other personal behaviors to sweeping societal ills: for example the social cure was key in bringing down Slobodan Milosevic.   It has worked in South Carolina and South Africa, Serbia and American suburbia.

It has been used to teach students calculus, improve the health of rural villages in India, help church members on their spiritual journey, lower health care costs for very sick patients, keep teens away from cigarettes and underpin the successful global development strategy of microcredit.

What can we learn from this diversity that can help us apply Join the Club strategies to  other problems?

  • Planning and Organizing is Everything

In 1964, the United States Surgeon General issued perhaps the most important health report ever to come out of that office. For the first time, a government body had concluded that smoking was addictive and harmful.
Public health advocates rejoiced:  surely now everyone who smoked would stop.  The truth was now out there – so who would continue to smoke?  The experts were shocked and paralyzed when the answer came back: almost everyone.

It is perhaps the clearest example of the unfortunate truth that nothing happens by itself.  The Otpor students of the anti-Milosevic fight found the same thing when they began to teach nonviolent revolutionaries all over the world.  The prevailing myth they had to dispel was that if people were angry, they would come out in the streets in large numbers.   This thinking has been a fatal mistake for many democracy groups.

Even when people have information that shows an action is in their own best interests, they will often fail to go out and do something about it.  This is where the social cure can help.  It is designed not to give people information but to motivate them, by providing a new peer group that will help people to think of themselves as active problem-solvers rather than passive victims.

But while the social cure can motivate people to plan and organize to solve problem, its use also requires planning and organizing.   People might be motivated by the meetings, but first they have to get there.  Every step in the process requires an active plan to mobilize people and the organization to carry out the plan.   Otpor’s street pranks would have been useless if the movement had failed to use them to recruit more members, and then trained those members to carry out their own street pranks.  The rebel-against-tobacco campaigns had a great message – but they also had armies of kids who spread the word in their high schools.

  • Steal Marketing Tips from Coca-Cola

Experts often make poor salesmen.   Anti-smoking campaigns are a good example.  For decades, the experts in public health stuck with themes that didn’t work.  They gave people information about how harmful cigarettes can be, and they used appeals to fear.  These campaigns addressed the concerns of public health experts, but they didn’t get to the heart of why young people (if you don’t start smoking when you’re young, chances are you never will) start smoking.

The most important barrier was not that the people running antismoking campaigns were amateur marketers.  The problem was that they were professional health experts.  They were so committed and knowledgeable that they could not put themselves inside the heads of those who are not.
The first successful anti-smoking campaigns, in California and Florida, were designed not by public health experts, but by advertisers.  They noticed that people start smoking not because cigarettes deliver nicotine, but because they deliver rebellion.  So they designed social cure strategies that worked by giving kids another target for their rebellion: the cigarette companies themselves.

Many of the large join-the-club programs in the book borrow heavily from the world of commercial advertising (strangely, especially from the world of soft drinks.) South Africa’s loveLife modeled itself on a Sprite experiential-marketing campaign.  Otpor’s influences were not only Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., but the branding and marketing of Coca-Cola.

These techniques are perhaps not necessary in an Alcoholics Anonymous-style program that aims to work with a small group of people who are already committed enough to show up.  But for any social cure strategy seeking masses, it is important not only to think like an advertiser – ask yourself, what would move not me but my target audience? – but also to adopt the tactics that commercial advertisers use.

  • Make it Easy to Put a Foot in the Door

It’s important to give people a first step to take that’s easy or attractive.   This provides them with a comfort level with and a commitment to the process.
Researchers in the mid-1960s found that California housewives who had complied with a small request – to answer a few questions on the phone about the household products, such as soap, that they use – were far more likely to then comply with a big, related request: allowing five or six men into their home for two hours to inventory their household products.   Some of the experiment’s subjects agreed to answer the phone survey, but were deliberately never called.  These people were not as likely as those who did complete the phone survey to let the men into their home.  So it wasn’t niceness or openness that made the difference – it was actually complying with the first request.

Another group of homeowners were asked to sign a petition, either for safe driving or to keep California beautiful.  People who signed either petition were then far more likely than those who had not been asked to sign to be willing to display a large ugly sign on their lawn that said “Keep California beautiful.”  Agreement was higher from those who had signed the related, pro-beautification petition than from the safe driving signers.

Letting people put their foot in the door has several advantages.  It gets them comfortable with you and the new ideas you are advocating.  It increases the barrier to leaving because doing so would create cognitive dissonance; even the small amount of commitment created by an early experience helps anchor people on your side.  And it allows you to test drive the idea a little and solve problems before it debuts on a wider scale.

Some of the social cure projects that promoted relatively radical change were successful in part because they let people put a foot in the door first.   Willow Creek Community Church used this when it began its Table groups – going from small groups structured around a shared affinity to small groups made up of people who live nearby.  The very first night of Table groups was held on a Wednesday, the night of the church’s midweek evening service.  The service was cancelled and worshippers were asked to host or attend a Table group instead.  This ensured that very busy people had the time to at least take a first taste of a new idea.

  • Look for the Hidden Opportunity

It’s obvious that teen AIDS prevention is susceptible to a social cure.   But with other problems, it’s not so obvious.   What can a join-the-club strategy do to help students learn math?  Or to make poor people in the third world richer?  Or to bring down a dictator?     The social cure works by helping people change their behavior by allowing them to identify with a new peer group.  There doesn’t seem to be much behavioral about these problems.
There is, however — but it is hidden.   The bad news is that a way the social cure can attack a problem can be hard to find.  The good news is that because that path can be so circuitous, there may be one, or more, nevertheless.   There are always many different factors conspiring to create problems.   Much of the time, one of them is susceptible to the social cure.

Would it help to solve a problem if people’s trust in each other could act as a substitute for a more expensive or difficult way to accomplish something?  This is how the social cure undergirds microcredit.  Having groups of village women vouch for each others’ creditworthiness by letting them into their borrowing group shifted that burden to borrowers from lenders.  That made small loans possible — with such tiny loans to people with no conventional collateral, banks would never have put in the time necessary to assure themselves that borrowers were creditworthy.

Would it help to solve the problem if people felt they had social permission to act in a way that their old social group frowned on?   Black math nerds may have become outcasts in high school for “acting white.”  To succeed in math in college, they need a new set of expectations from a new peer group.
Would people get active in a cause if it made them feel part of something cool?   This was a key component of loveLife in South Africa and of Otpor in Serbia.

Might the problem be susceptible to an approach where people reinforce their commitment or skills by mentoring others?    Alcoholics Anonymous helps in part by allowing people to become sponsors, which strengthens their own commitment.  But groups can also strengthen skills.  One part of what made the calculus clubs work is that students taught each other – you have to understand a calculus problem pretty well to be able to explain it to someone else.

Would it help a group of downtrodden people to speak out and fight for their rights if they had examples close by of peers who did the same thing?   The Jamkhed women – largely illiterate, many of them from the Dalit caste, accustomed to thinking of themselves as no better than dust – learned to be bold and assertive by watching other women just like them who had made the same journey.

Is there any component of the problem that could be solved if people were better able to adhere to a plan?  The success of a tuberculosis treatment in which a friend, family member or community health worker watches the patient swallow his pills every day can work to help people manage all sorts of chronic diseases.

In any of these cases – and this list is just the beginning —  the social cure can help.

  • Think About Creating Catalysts

The social cure is often a two-step process.   The ultimate aim of the Jamkhed program was not empowerment of its village health workers.  It sought to turn these women into people who would then change their villages.   Otpor in Serbia did not aim to create democracy.   It aimed to create protagonists – an army of active, involved, daring people who then went on to help overthrow Milosevic.

The example of Otpor is particularly adaptable to other social ills.   What Otpor figured out how to do is mobilize people.   This is a challenge politicians all over the globe have been trying to crack throughout history.  Once mobilized, an army of involved citizens can solve many different problems.  (It can also cause problems; we are all familiar with how peer pressure can be used as a negative influence.)

  • Plan a Defense

Many of the stories in this book provide early examples of success with the social cure – but that success proved hard to maintain.  Florida, for example, showed the country how to stop teens from starting to smoke by giving them a new target for their rebellion: the cigarette companies.

Florida’s idea quickly moved onto a national scale.  But a decade later, it is fading away.  It still exists, but in many cases, the money to make it work is dwindling.  Some states — even Florida — have abandoned the strategy and gone back to old, ineffective ones.   Teen smoking rates are once again rising.
The reason is obvious: the financial and political power of the tobacco companies, who have fought back against a strategy that they correctly perceive as a threat.

But it is not necessary to experience the shock and awe tobacco companies can muster to see a join-the-club solution fade away.   The calculus clubs begun at the University of California at Berkeley to help minority students excel in math eventually spread to 150 universities across the United States.  They are in nowhere near this number of schools today.  Why is this?

In the case of the calculus clubs, their most lethal opponent is inertia.  For a university to adopt a calculus club, it must have a committed and assertive graduate student or professor willing to navigate the academic politics to get it done.   It must have some money – pizza change, really, enough to add a small amount to a graduate student’s salary and hire an undergraduate or two as helpers.  These may seem like trivial obstacles for the huge returns that the calculus clubs produce.  But in many universities, they have been enough to ensure that nothing happens.

No matter how successful, programs rarely sustain themselves.   CANVAS, the group established by the anti-Milosevic Otpor movement to train democracy activists in other repressive regimes, struggles for financing.   So does Jamkhed, the Indian rural health program that has so dramatically transformed the villages in which it works.  STREET, the south London drop-in center that turns radicalized Muslim youth away from violent extremism, has lost all its government funding and is in danger of closing.

The lesson here is that a social cure needs to be accompanied by a plan to defend it against political attacks and keep the money flowing.


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