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Peer pressure produces good policy

john hood

John Hood

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Monday, April 16, 2018

Peer pressure has been the reason, or at least the rationalization, for many a youthful indiscretion — not that I would know from personal experience. Actually, the effect doesn’t dissipate when kids grow up. People of all ages respond to social cues and peer competition. It’s the way our brains are made, like it or not.

In politics and public policy, peer pressure can be either a negative or a positive force. We see examples of the former every day, as our political discourse gets yanked downward to the lowest common denominator. But positive peer effects in politics are also common and significant.

Ever noticed how often you see rankings of states, cities, counties or school districts? If you’re a regular reader of my column, you see them all the time. I collect and update dozens of different rankings of economic, political, and social indicators. I do so not just because I’m a data nerd but also because reporting such rankings is an excellent way of starting conversations.

National rankings are useful, but what often matters even more to people are comparisons among neighboring jurisdictions. If you want to annoy South Carolina politicians, tell them that the Tar Heel State outranks the Palmetto State on some policy dimension. It works the other way, too. “If even those people can do it, surely we can!” is one kind of response. Or, “I’m not satisfied with how well we are doing yet, but at least we’re better off than they are!”

It turns out that experts on policy diffusion — the ways in which a given idea gets implemented across political jurisdictions — have founds lots of evidence for peer effects. One 2004 study in Political Research Quarterly examined two different kinds of peer effects. “Social learning” is when policymakers from one place hear about a policy innovation simply because it happened somewhere nearby.

The other effect, “economic competition,” is more about carrots and sticks. If places adopt new policies and get good results — or even just look like they might get good results — policymakers in other places can feel like they’ll fall behind if they don’t follow suit.

A study published last year in Public Administration Review illustrated positive policy effects of peer pressure here in North Carolina, on the important issue of government transparency. Researchers from the University of Massachusetts and Pennsylvania State University crafted a standard public-records request for email archives from county managers and department heads. The team randomly assigned 40 of North Carolina’s 100 counties to what they called the pilot group and sent the request to them. After 40 days, only eight of those counties had fully complied with the researchers’ request for email records.

Next, the researchers divided the remaining 60 counties into two groups. The control group of 30 counties got the same public-records request. The treatment group of 30 counties got the request with the following passage added: “For your reference, we would like to let you know that we have issued this request to other county governments in North Carolina. A number of them have already fulfilled our request, including Polk County, McDowell County, Columbus County, Person County, Lincoln County, Alexander County, Dare County and Transylvania County.”

You know what I’m going to say, right? The counties in the treatment group responded more quickly, and more completely, to the public-records request than the control group did. Moreover, the effect was stronger when the treatment county was close to one of the eight pilot counties mentioned in the public-records request, demonstrating that neighbors produce more peer pressure than do faraway counties within the same state.

We can learn two things from this study. First, public officials respond to incentives and social cues. Whatever your favorite political cause, keep that in mind.

The second lesson is that North Carolinians who live in Polk, McDowell, Columbus, Person, Lincoln, Alexander, Dare or Transylvania counties ought to be proud of their county governments. They complied with our public-records law without having to be coaxed.

John Hood (@JohnHoodNC) is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on “NC SPIN” at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and 12:30 p.m. Sundays on UNC-TV.

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