OPINION: Peer Pressure Can Be a Lifesaver

Friday, May 16, 2014

When we hear that someone succumbed to peer pressure or conformed to group expectations, we are inclined to think about it in negative terms. We imagine a young person smoking his first cigarette or an adult parroting the consensus of her community. We know that these social forces can cause people to act in ways that are harmful to themselves and others; but every day we are discovering more ways that they can be harnessed to solve problems in health, education and other areas. This is crucial. For decades, development organizations have spent billions of dollars developing medicines, installing wells, or building clinics or schools that people have not fully used, if they have used them at all.

Providing the right tools to fix a problem is only part of a solution, and often the easy part. Changing behavior is much tougher. Consider water. Impure water can cause diarrhea, which kills 760,000 children under 5 each year. To curb transmission of waterborne diseases, many governments and donors focus on building wells and other water sources, but one big problem is that water is often recontaminated when people transport and store it. There is a relatively simple solution to this problem: chlorine.

It’s not expensive. In Kenya, for instance, the cost of chlorine for a family of five is about one cent per day. Despite the fact that it would save many lives, and reduce illness, most people do not use it to treat their water. One organization, Innovations for Poverty Action(IPA), based in New Haven, Conn., applied behavioral science to the problem. They developed a new chlorine dispenser with a convenient delivery system and a valve calibrated to release a set dose, making it simple to treat a 20-liter container of water.

But they also went further: They installed the dispensers at communal water sources, where neighbors could see one another using it, and feel pressure to follow suit. They enlisted a community member to be a “promoter,” whose job is to refill the chlorine tank each month, teach the community about the importance of chlorine, and report problems to the local health ministry.

Source: New York Times (link opens in a new window)

Health Care
global health, health care