Ep 89: The Followers & the Rebels

Episode Summary

Michelle Baddeley, author of Copycats and Contrarians, offers a multidisciplinary look at why a teen goes along with the group and when they choose instead to rebel. The key to preventing potentially harmful impulses may lie in a moment of hesitation.

Show NotesParenting ScriptsInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

At times it may seem like all your teen wants to do is exactly whatever their friends are doing…even if that means jumping off a cliff, as the metaphor goes. Other times, our teens seem to be rejecting everything and anything, rebelling to the point of isolation. It’s difficult to know when your teen is going to follow the rules and when they’ll rebel.

The big question tightrope teens are walking almost all have to do with identity. Parents might be familiar with teens being adamant that they have a certain brand of jeans one month only to discard or alter those same jeans the next month. Some teens call their parents at the first sight of alcohol at a party, and other teens gladly grab a drink–and sometimes what your teen chooses might depend on which party they’re attending.

The answers to the question of how we might get our teens to think through their choices–following or rebelling–may actually lie in the world of behavioral economics.

This week, Michelle Baddeley, author of Copycats and Contrarians: Why We Follow Others…and When We Don’t, and world-expert on behavioral economics, covers when and why people copy each other and when they rebel. Behavioral economics, as Michelle explains, posits that new behaviors are acquired through observation and imitation–basically we look at how other people behave and take our cues from there. Anyone thrown into a new situation is susceptible to relying too much on others to determine their future behavior. Among the most vulnerable group to this influence is first-year high school/university students.

When I asked what wisdom Dr. Baddeley could offer parents who want to help their teens combat this influence, Dr. Baddeley focused on the importance of shared trust, communication, and doing the research. By illuminating the consequences of rash decisions with real life examples, Dr. Baddely notes that parents can help their teens without coming across as controlling or out-of-touch.

Another important topic we cover is perhaps counterintuitive to most people: rebels are important. Dissent is essential for politics, capitalism, education–even families! Often people rebelling have a reason, and discussing why your teen disagrees with a family policy can open up deeper conversations about values and worldviews.

This too is supported in her research. While contrarians may simply enjoy the risk of being different, they do push the copycats to reconsider their position. The same can be said about rebellious teens. Most of the time, they may be wrong. But sometimes, they’re right. Simply quashing rebellion without discussing it–particularly if it’s repeated disobedience of a specific rule or policy–might send the message to your teen to merely be more covert with their dissent.

In addition to how behavioral economics informs communication with teens, Michelle and I cover:

  • Tattoos and how to get your teen to reconsider getting one!
  • If it’s possible to truly resist peer pressure
  • A trick to get anyone to reconsider their decision
  • How to reverse a social media copycat-bubble
  • The upside of rebels and mavericks

Michelle’s book is multidisciplinary in nature and that seemed to be just how our conversation went as well. Turns out, there’s a lot we can all learn about adult-teen communication from principles in behavioral economics. Excited to share this one with our listeners!

Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1. When your teen wants to get a very permament tattoo (or piercing):

“If you want to make a decision like that, I’d like to feel that you’ve weighed all the pros and cons really carefully before you make it. So if you can talk to five people who got tattoos at your age and what they think about those tattoos now, I think that would convince me that maybe this decision is okay.”

-Andy Earle

2.  Check in to see if your word choices bother your teen:

(Members Only)

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: We’ve got this book here, Copycats and Contrarians: Why we follow others, and when we don’t. Why was this written?

Michelle: So, I’m an Economist and economics is about the way that people make decisions and choices. And you see a lot of copying behavior, and so I was quite interested to explore why people follow one another. And there are models in economics that explain it as, in fact not a stupid thing to do.

Andy: Okay.

Michelle: So, for example you’re buying you a mobile phone, let’s say, and you didn’t know anything about mobile phones. Then you might see other people buying a certain sort of mobile phone and think, well, they know something I don’t know and so they follow.

Andy: People seem like they know what’s going on. I don’t know what’s going on, maybe…

Michelle: That’s not a stupid thing to do, that’s actually probably quite a clever thing to do if you don’t know very much. And so, that’s how some economists explain it. But, I was also interested… Generally, I’m interested in the fact that one discipline, one subject can’t explain everything.

Andy: Yeah.

Michelle: So, I’ve always been quite interested in Science and well as the Social Sciences. There’s lots from all the different discipline groups that is interesting. And so I thought it would be really cool to sort of bring in ideas from a lot of other subject areas. So, I thought, let’s see what the Evolutionary Biologists say. Let’s see what the Psychologists say. Let’s see what Political Scientists say. So, it’s a very multidisciplinary book, which is probably a bit unusual. But that was one of the really enjoyable bits about the book, was really looking across the different subject areas into all the reasons why people might copy one another.

Andy: You’re speaking my language there. I love looking at things from all kinds of different angles, trying to get all different perspectives on it and see what people have in common and what they don’t. And of course, here on our podcast, we talk about teenagers. So, this is a topic, conformity. And why we kind of sometimes go along with the group and peer pressure, peer influence, all of that is really important for us.

Andy: And then also the flip side of the title is Copycats and Contrarians. So, the other side of the book is why we sometimes rebel or want to stand out and not go along with what other people are doing, which also rears its head a lot with teenagers. We get a lot of parents coming in and saying, “Hey, my kid is rebelling and how do I get them to stop?” So, this book just grabbed my attention when I came across it, because I think these are just such important topics. And I like that you kind of look at it from all these different lenses and you bring in some of your own research in here as well.

Michelle: Yes.

Andy: Which is really fascinating. And that’s… That you did with Wolfram Schultz I believe?

Michelle: That’s right. So, Wolfram Schultz is a very well known Neuroscientist.

Andy: Yeah.

Michelle: He does various experiments, essentially looking at how the brain works… And so, I went along to an economics conference in the States a few years back. I went along to this session that was all about bringing economics neuroscience together. Economics [inaudible 00:03:22], but it’s often just focused on what people do. It’s not very good at explaining why people do things they do, because it’s not about actually looking inside people’s brains. But here economics tries to do that.

Andy: I see.

Michelle: Seeing what’s going on in the brain and people making decisions. So, I found this particular conference session, very inspiring. I thought, well, maybe that’s the way to understand … quite a clever thing to do, or is it an emotional thing to do? Is it peer pressure or is it social learning like the example of the smartphone. Or is it some combination two? And I thought, well, what I need to do is look up the senior scientists and see how they can help in answering these questions.

Michelle: So, Wolfram and I started collaborating, doing some experiments, including some brain experiments using a technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging, FMRI. The thing about it is, it can look at how the brain is reacting when someone is choosing and deciding. And so, we got people to do a financial task where they were picking shares, stocks and shares, financial things.

Andy: Sure.

Michelle: And they were observing others and making their choice often … So, the idea is you look at someone else, are you going to do the same or not? And what we were interested in, is what was happening in the brain when that choice has been made. Just to keep it really simple, in neuroscience there is this idea that certain areas of the brain that are more highly evolved and associated with, mathematical reasoning, and-

Andy: Sure, right.

Michelle: And that would fit with the social learning, buying smartphones example from before. But there are other areas of the brain that are much more primitive and instinctive and emotional.

Andy: Sure.

Michelle: And what we actually found is that it was a bit of an interaction of the two. So, there’s a bit of this sort of very rational, social learning thing going on, but there is also something emotional and instinctive going on. When people copy others.

Andy: I love what you talk about here. When you talk about these researchers, Fishman and Neezy, and they’re looking at the lines that form outside of these restaurants on campus. And they noticed something really interesting about the lengths of the lines that were forming outside. So, even though one restaurant was already crowded, it would seem like, logically to come up with these two restaurants and one’s really crowded, you would go to the one that’s not crowded, because then you would have to not wait as much, right? You would get faster service. So, what’s going on there? Why would they, why are they doing that?

Michelle: That’s the classic example. I’ve illustrated it with a smartphone, but in the economic models they often use the restaurants-

Andy: I see.

Michelle: So a very early paper on this was by a person called … and he used the restaurant example because it’s really, we can all relate to that can’t we? If we see two restaurants next door to one another, we’re not going to go into the empty one-

Andy: Oh no. It must be terrible. Why’s no one else going there?

Michelle: That’s the social learning thing. It’s a bit like the smartphone, you buy the smartphone everyone else is buying, because maybe they know something you don’t. And so, that Neezy and Fishman study is really quite clever, because a lot of the trouble with experiments, especially in economics, is that you don’t really know that it’s real behavior. You don’t know that people would do the same thing in your lab. Whereas, this particular experiment they studied real life. They were looking at these two restaurant queues. And they were saying, well, these two restaurants were identical-

Andy: Yeah.

Michelle: In every other way or pretty much the same. So, why was it that people were just forming one queue behind one restaurant? And that was because it’s a social learning thing. People think, well, those people know this is a good place to eat.

Andy: Right.

Michelle: And so we’re going to eat here too.

Andy: So I think what’s interesting is what you point out in this book is that it’s like, we make a decision as a combination of external and internal information and we weigh that. And so, at the beginning of the semester, these students, they have no internal information whatsoever about these two restaurants. So they go completely off of external information, which is, “Hey, everyone’s lining up outside of this one. So it’s got to be better.” But, by halfway through the semester, now they have a bunch of internal information because they’ve actually experienced both restaurants, maybe. So, they know that actually they’re like kind of the same. By the end of the semester the lines even out, and there’s no more this effect-

Michelle: That’s right. That was the other interesting thing about that study was that they did look at …

Andy: Yeah.

Michelle: When they were freshers and then later on when they had more of their own knowledge, because some of these models do say, “You’re more likely to follow others when you don’t know.”

Andy: Yeah, right.

Michelle: You don’t have your own information to go on. And so, with that restaurant example exactly to say-

Andy: I just think that’s interesting, because we looked a lot at the transition into college, specifically in how influential peer norms are, social norms on drinking behavior and other risk taking behaviors in adolescents during that transition phase. And it’s really, it’s highly impactful. And I think one of the reasons is because of exactly that, because when you’re entering a new environment where you don’t know what the norms, then you start to really become tuned into those. You go to this learning mode, you know, just, that’s kind of how anything’s going to work. If you’re going to a new school, if you’re joining a new friend group, if you’re joining a new team, like anything that a teenager is doing, like that is going to involve this period of learning the ropes and adjustment and sort of chameleoning themselves a little bit to the expectations of that group.

Michelle: And the danger there is that if people… All of us as teenagers is susceptible to what our peers are doing. It’s part of growing up. You’re finding your crowd of friends and you do what they do because you want to feel part of a group. You want to share an identity. But, the trouble particularly for freshers at university or college, whatever they do, or young people, is they get into bad habits at that stage.

Michelle: For example, drinking too much, drug taking, whatever. Those habits conflict. Those habits can have negative consequences, 10, 20, 30 years down the track. And so, I think Behavioral Economists have found that if people are aware of what’s influencing them, they can do a bit more about it. If you’re aware that your peers are doing things that maybe aren’t going to be very good for you in the long term. If you’re aware of that, maybe you can control it.

Andy: One topic that causes a lot of conflict between parents and teenagers, tattoos and piercings. There’s some interesting stuff in this book about that topic. I’m looking at page 32. I thought this was really interesting. You write that when and how is it economically rational to signal identification with others through ostensibly costly and painful actions, such as tattoos and piercings. These seem like maverick actions to outsiders, but make much more sense to others with whom we identify and the costlier the actions, the better, because more costly signals, far more credible. We would not incur such large costs, whether physical, psychological, or monetary, if we were not sincere. So, as a parent, it’s like, “Well, it doesn’t come off!. You should really rethink that.” But as a teenager, it’s like, “Well, that’s the point.” Right?

Michelle: Yes.

Andy: And just like you’re saying, it means a lot more when it can’t come off, you know?

Michelle: Yeah. It’s like an investment in an identity, you know-

Andy: Sure.

Michelle: You say, “I’m really, I’m really with you.”

Andy: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. “I want to join this. I’m in.”

Michelle: Yeah. I’m a credible member.

Andy: What do I got to do? I got to get three tattoos? I can do that.

Michelle: There’s a cultural and generational thing about it, because you think a lot of women have their ears pierced and it’s not controversial at all. It’s actually not completely permanent, but… And it’s not so visible. But, it’s cultural and generational. So in my generation, people didn’t really get tattoos. In other cultures people do similar things. So, it is a bit of a value judgment in the sense about that. And there have been studies of tattoos as a form of art as well. There are tattoos and there are tattoos aren’t there?

Andy: I mean, what wisdom could you offer based on all this research for a parent who’s staring down the situation. “We got a 16 year old who’s planning to get a tattoo here and we’re trying to talk them through this choice.” How do we approach that?

Michelle: I think with any of these complex issues talking is a really good first step, to develop trust with the teenager. To explain to them, “Well, you are in this position now, but you need to try and imagine what you might think in 30 years time, 20 years time, or 10 years time.” That these permanent decisions have consequences in the future. It’s a bit like drinking too much or taking drugs, whatever. There are going to be future consequences. And by their nature I guess, teenagers are having such an exciting life.

Andy: Yeah, right.

Michelle: It’s very hard for them to think of the future. But I think often illustrating with examples and anecdotes, because another thing in behavioral economics is that people don’t respond very well to being told about things that are intangible and foreign feature, they respond far better to things that are very tangible and immediate.

Andy: Right.

Michelle: That can come in the form of anecdotes and stories or, there was a person who had tattoos and they discovered in 10 years time, maybe they tattooed the name of their boyfriend, girlfriend, and in 10 years time they meet someone else and there’s this tattoo and it costs them however much to remove the tattoo and it has implications for their future relationship. So, just trying to make the implications of that choice just more immediate. And I know that’s-

Andy: But 10 years, I mean, that’s still not very immediate. What if you just said, “If you do it, I’ll wack you across the head.” That’s really immediate.

Michelle: Yes. The trouble with that is that you erode trust. People can be punished explicitly in that way. It doesn’t mean that they’re not going to start hiding their actions. And if they think that they’re going to get hit or whatever, or punished without much attempt at reasoning with them, then they’ll just do it in secret in the future.

Andy: Right.

Michelle: Or remove themselves or distance themselves. So it’s about, I guess, common sense as well. But the thing… I mean, ultimately it depends on the age teenage as well. Because ultimately, maybe it is their choice. Once they’re beyond a certain age.

Andy: The end of the day. Yep. You’ve got to deal with the consequences of your own actions. We’re big fans of that approach here. Maybe making some sort of a thing where, if you want to make a decision like that, I’d like to feel like you’ve weighed all the options really carefully. And you’ve weighed the pros and cons really well before you make it. So, if you could convince me somehow that you have at least gone and talked to five people that got tattoos when they were your age about, I don’t know, something. Convince me that you’ve really thought it through, maybe write me an essay or something. But at the end of the day, it’s your choice.

Michelle: With a much more benign example, I have a colleague and her children wanted to get a dog. A dog is a big responsibility.

Andy: Yeah.

Michelle: And so, what her children did was they put together a PowerPoint presentation. And presented to their parents, why it was a good idea for them to have a dog-

Andy: Okay.

Michelle: And all the things they’d do to take responsibility for that dog. So actually, that sort of thing. “Present to me why it’s important.” And that’s a really good idea in terms of encouraging teams to think it through. “Explain to me why it’s important”, and the process of thinking about explaining it. They will think it through themselves and think, “Okay, maybe I do want to have a tattoo, but do I have to have a tattoo now? Why not wait until I’m a little bit older when I”-

Andy: Yeah.

Michelle: …can make a more informed decision. But I thought that… and it worked. These children persuaded their parents to get them a puppy?

Andy: Wow. Okay.

Michelle: Yeah. So they presented their case. And that’s good practice in life as well.

Andy: Okay. There’s something that conflicts a little bit with that, when you start talking about in group out group and Tajfel’s research, because you point out in here, in Economic models of identity, Tajfel’s findings kind of undermine this because Tajfel and his colleagues showed that group identity can be formed without people having to do very much at all to signal the groups to which to identify.

Andy: Whilst hipsters and other rebels want to be defined as different, they do not need to incur significant cost to persuade others that they belong. Okay, so what do you mean by that? I thought we just said the tattoos are good, because the tattoos prove to people that you really put in the effort. So, now you can join the group. But now you’re saying, well, maybe actually that’s not the case.

Michelle: So, in that part it was presenting to two, I guess, conflicting hypotheses. So, the one about you get tattoos cause you’re investing in your social network. Sort of like… That’s the economic argument. That getting the tattoo is a rational thing to do, because you’re signaling to your group that you’re really with them. You’ve invested in that identity, in that group by taking this extreme action. So, that’s what the economists would say, but the social psychologists wouldn’t agree. It’s coming back to this idea that there are certain parts of the brain that are associated with highly rational reasoning, whatever.

Michelle: The very clever parts of the brain. But then there are also these more instinctive, emotional parts. Tajfel as associate psychologist is coming more from that approach that people do… they form affiliations with their in group and form antipathies and resentments towards their out groups and the trouble is that people can form an identity with their in group really quickly and easily, which makes it dangerous. Because people can quickly feel that they identify maybe with some radical cause or whatever, that is destructive or join a gang. And that can happen really quickly and easily.

About Michelle Baddeley

Dr. Michelle Baddeley is a leading expert in behavioural economics and finance, specialising in social decision-making. Alongside her book, Copycats and Contrarians, and edited volumes, Michelle has published in a wide range of international journals, and serves on a number of editorial boards, including serving as the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Behavioral Economics for Policy. Her research is international and transdisciplinary and she collaborates with researchers from a wide range of disciplines – including computer science, neuroscience, psychology, sociology, anthropology, management, medical science, environmental science and social policy.

Michelle currently resides in Australia where she is the Associate Dean of Research and Economics Professor at the University of Technology Sydney.

Want More Michelle?

You can find Dr. Baddeley on her social media of choice: Twitter.