Efforts to change behavior culture-wide usually involve admonitions and warnings. These are ineffective. Instead, we must pursue the science of cultural change.


The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, March 9, 2010. This blog post also appeared on Stanton's Addiction in Society blog at PsychologyToday.com.

The Science of Changing Cultural Habits – Money, Food, Alcohol

Suzie Orman - the popular financial guru - is a nudge. She tells people to save their dimes, live within their means, and accumulate money. But will this change Americans? Here is what she is up against, according to Tom Friedman , the NY Times columnist: "We are the United States of Deferred Maintenance. China is the People's Republic of Deferred Gratification. They save, invest and build. We spend, borrow and patch."

The differences in American and Chinese economic outlooks and savings habits - built on history, culture, opportunity, et al. - cannot be reversed easily. There are transition periods - like the last depression followed by WWII - that impact America's entire cultural outlook. Although 9/11 didn't produce comparable changes in our economic behavior, future events might do so for today's kids and young adults. For example, more families are living together across generations due to economic hardship - which IS reminiscent of depression-era lifestyle changes.

One part of the world in which large-scale, systematic culture change is occurring is Europe, where the EU is moving towards economic integration. As a result, taxes on alcohol were lowered in Scandinavia, where they were traditionally high, and limits were removed on the amount of alcohol people could bring with them when returning from Continental Europe, where alcohol is less expensive.

Traditional theory predicted a spike in consumption in several countries (Denmark, Sweden, Finland). But systematic surveys did not find this - indeed, in Denmark, Finland and Southern Sweden, where the changes were implemented, measured consumption and reported problems both declined, while in a control area where change was delayed, Northern Sweden, self-reported problems increased!

In this case, other cultural changes supported the changes in alcohol policy to cause people to modify the binge drinking more common to Nordic countries. For example, Scandinavians have been exposed to Southern European drinking styles (more wine-with-meals, less gin in weekend blow-outs) due both to media and travel experiences.

The issue of changing cultures is a crucial one for Americans' health and well-being. Michelle Obama wants to change the American culture of early-age obesity, steeped as it is in electronic entertainments, easy access to calories, and fear of going outside. She can't remove the entertainments, calories, and fear - what can she do?

Suzie Orman proceeds one person at a time, or at least one TV show episode at a time. People (often women) write her that she has changed their lives - and she has, the same way "The Biggest Loser" changes the lives of a few targeted or self-selected people. But that doesn't change larger statistics, or American society, which inexorably move forward in these two areas - low savings rates, high obesity rates.

So where can we systematically change cultures - or more accurately, subcultures? This is possible where the following conditions prevail:

  • Limited and controlled environments
  • Youthful and formative populations
  • Forward-looking management
  • Researched methods for bringing about goals

This describes a college campus. I cite this example because of a conference scheduled for Northampton University at the end of this month called: "Student Alcohol (Mis)use ," which aims to reverse a culture of excessive and binge drinking. This can be attempted in Britain because students are drinking legally at age 18.

The Amethyst Initiative, a group of over 100 American University presidents in the United States, wants to lower the drinking age for this very reason - because they feel this will allow them to get a handle on the drinking cultures on their campuses. For example, they could shift most drinking from fraternity and dormitory parties to university dining areas where wine and beer are served in well-lit environments, with food, among integrated age groups (faculty, grad students, seniors, frosh). In this setting, young people experience alcohol in a moderating atmosphere that can influence their drinking habits throughout college - indeed, potentially, their entire lives.

We often witness public health campaigns that amount to little more than admonitions to straighten up and fly right. But these don't do any good. A recent assessment of anti-alcohol advertising, by Adam Duhachek of the Indiana Kelley School of Business and colleagues, found that ads that link alcohol abuse to negative consequences like blackouts and automobile crashes bring about defensive counter-reactions: "The public health and marketing communities expend considerable effort and capital on these campaigns," Duhachek said. But "these ads ultimately may do more harm than good because they have the potential to spur more of the behavior they're trying to prevent."

Cultural change demands less hectoring, more planning, more knowledge, and more attention to human society and psychology.