DAVID GREENE, HOST:
We all know how peer pressure works. Maybe you're sitting next to a student in class, and some of his or her diligence is rubbing off on you. When you learn your neighbors are installing solar panels on their roof, maybe you want to try doing the same thing. But we're also increasingly learning that peer pressure does not always work. And here to talk about that is NPR social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam. Hey, Shankar.
SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Hi, David.
GREENE: You're dressing very well today. I feel like I might try to dress better tomorrow. That feels like peer pressure does work, doesn't it?
VEDANTAM: I hope it rubs off on you, David.
GREENE: So what's going on here?
VEDANTAM: So here's the thing. Our peers often shape our behavior, but sometimes they don't. And what I'm about to tell you, actually, is based on an intuitive idea. So, David, let me give you a scenario. Let's say that you're training for a 5K race, and you learn that a producer on MORNING EDITION was a good runner. It might be a good idea to start working out together. But what if your partner was not a little better than you, but an Olympic distance runner? What would happen to you?
GREENE: I would be really intimidated and not want to run with that person.
VEDANTAM: Exactly. I was speaking with Todd Rogers. He's a professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School. He's just finished a study looking at the difference between being with peers who are a little better than you and being with peers who are way better than you.
VEDANTAM: Here he is.
TODD ROGERS: When you are compared to people who are doing a little better than you, it can be really motivating. Other people use less energy than me; I'm more likely to reduce my energy use. Other people are voting; I'm motivated to vote. But what's happening here is it's really not that someone is doing a little better than you; it's someone is unattainably better than you.
GREENE: I am so curious to know how he actually experimented with people to figure this out.
VEDANTAM: (Laughter) Well, it wasn't with running. He studied more than 5,000 students taking a MOOC, a massive open online course. Now, like many MOOCs, David, this one had students grade one another's work. So the idea is that you and I are both students, I grade your work, you grade my work, we both learn things from one another and by seeing each other's work. Now, just by random, ordinary students sometimes get paired with the very best students, the top students. And all that Rogers and his colleague, Avi Feller, did was analyze what happens to students who are exposed to this top quality work. And what they find is ordinary students become far more likely to quit the course when they're paired with the very, very best students compared to similar students who are not reviewing the work of the top students but reviewing other students who are closer to their own ability.
GREENE: So you and I might be paired together. I'm grading your work. You're grading mine. You are a top-notch student. And I am noticing that because I'm grading your work, and I'm getting very intimidated. And I might be likely to quit the course then.
VEDANTAM: That's exactly right. And the reason this happens, David, is because of a very interesting psychological phenomenon known as a reference bias. When the ordinary students are reading the work of the best students, they're unconsciously drawing a faulty conclusion. Here's Rogers again.
ROGERS: You interpret that as meaning everyone who's participating in this course is that good. The problem is that people don't realize these are atypical. This kind of process is called reference bias. They just - they shift who they think the reference group is, and they think this is what their peers are like.
GREENE: Oh, so I see. So the problem, Shankar, is that someone sees someone who's doing great things. They worry that everyone is that great which makes them feel inferior. Is there a way to avoid people having that perception?
VEDANTAM: Yeah, I think one thing that educators and parents and managers might want to do is to help, you know, students and kids and employees see that the individuals they're comparing themselves against are not the norm. In other words, it's fine to recognize work that's extraordinary, but you shouldn't assume that everyone other than you is performing at that extraordinary level.
GREENE: Got it. You're an extraordinary dresser. I'm not even going to try to match you tomorrow. I'm just not going to come to work.
GREENE: That's the bottom line.
VEDANTAM: This the first time in my life anyone has said I'm unattainably better than them when it comes to dressing.
GREENE: Savor it, Shankar.
GREENE: That is Shankar Vedantam. He's NPR's social science correspondent, and he's the host of a new podcast that explores the unseen patterns in human behavior. It is called Hidden Brain. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.