Riding the Herd Mentality: A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

A traffic mime in Lima, Peru. (Photo: David Berkowitz)

Our latest Freakonomics Radio podcast is called “Riding the Herd Mentality.” The gist: How peer pressure – and good, old-fashioned shame – can push people to do the right thing.

(You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript below.)

Antanas Mockus. (Photo: Heinrich-Boll-Stiftung)

Our story begins in Bogota, Colombia, where a new mayor, Antanas Mockus, used some unconventional methods to bring order to a disorderly and unsafe city. Mockus, trained as a mathematician and philosopher, had been president of Colombia’s national university but things went south when he mooned a group of dissenters. As mayor, he dressed up as a superhero and enacted all sorts of rules and programs that tried to change the way a government gets its citizens to do the right thing. You’ll hear directly from Mockus as well as the filmmaker Margarita Martinez, who made a film about him.

We also speak at length to Robert Cialdini, a giant in the “influence” field (indeed, Influence is the title of his best-known book, and is well worth a read). For years, Cialdini and colleagues have been exploring how “social norms” can lead to more “pro-social behavior” — or, translated into lay speak, how getting people to fall in line with their neighbors can make life a little better for everyone:

CIALDINI: Birds flock together in very neat patterns, fish school, cattle herd, social insects swarm together. So this is something that doesn’t require a lot of cognitive capacity in order to trigger the conformity. All you need to do is to see what those around you, like you, are doing. And it’s a good shortcut to deciding what you should do in a situation.

A former “lush green lawn” in Midland, TX, before restrictions on how much residents could water their lawns were imposed. (Photo: Krissy Clark)

You’ll also hear a really interesting piece by Marketplace reporter Krissy Clark, who spent some time in west Texas, where a severe drought forced people to cut down on their water use. At least they were supposed to cut down — but those lush green lawns that some Texans were used to don’t just get green on their own. You’ll hear from Barbie Jones, president of the Grassland Estates homeowners’ association; Wes Perry, the mayor of Midland; and local talk-show host Robert Hallmark, who noted that people got creative when it came to skirting the new watering rules:

HALLMARK: The Slip ‘n Slide Rule was that you could operate a Slip ‘n Slide in your front yard for the kids anytime you wanted to. Now you know as well as I do a Slip ‘n Slide is nothing but a water hose with holes in it. It is just pouring water out onto the lawn. So we determined how much it would cost to hire kids to stand in your yard in a bathing suit just so you could water your yard.

And you’ll also hear from our resident economist, Steve Levitt, who has a unique way of assessing the value of using guilt and shame as motivators:

LEVITT: From an economic perspective, shame is a wonderful punishment because unlike imprisonment, it’s free. It’s not only free but the society can impose as much shame as they want on people without any kind of cost or resources used up. But in fact, the rest of society actually likes it when other people get shamed. People love to read in The National Enquirer or The New York Times about the shame that comes down on public people. So it’s actually a really incredibly efficient mechanism for punishing people who do things we don’t like.

Hope you enjoy the episode. It was a lot of fun to produce. I’d particularly like to hear your instances of successful (or unsuccessful) applications of peer pressure and shame, whether in your family, company, or government.

Audio Transcript

Stephen J. DUNBER: This is the sound of traffic in Bogota, the capital of Colombia. It’s pretty chaotic—horse carts right beside BMW’s, bikes and pedestrians and buses all competing for the same patch of pavement. But as bad as traffic is now, it used to be worse.

Margarita MARTINEZ: Oh my god, just crossing the street, it was an act of folly maybe.

DUBNER: That’s Margarita Martinez. She’s a journalist and filmmaker.

MARTINEZ: Because you wouldn’t have an assurance that if it was red, no one was going to let you walk, but maybe they felt like they could keep driving. You know, the traffic lights didn’t mean anything, it was just a suggestion, not really something that would be enforced.  Back then, there didn’t even exist rules. So, we can say it was the jungle.


DUBNER: In the early 1990s, Bogota was one of the most dangerous cities around. Its homicide rate was triple that of New York’s, and traffic fatalities were also very common, with a rate more than four times of New York’s. But in 1994, Bogota voted in a new mayor, a most unusual mayor. His name was Antanas Mockus. How unusual was he? Well, Mockus had previously served as president of Bogota’s National University, but he resigned after an incident in which he mooned a group of unruly students. Still, in a city as chaotic as Bogota, maybe he was just the kind of mayor they needed.

Antanas MOCKUS: I felt free to be a little bit outside of the normal behavior.

DUBNER: That’s Mockus. He wound up serving two terms as mayor, from 1995 to 1997 and again from 2001 to 2003. He did all kinds of things that weren’t quite normal behavior. He gave tens of thousands of citizens a placebo “vaccine against violence.” He preached the evils of graffiti by dressing up as a character he called Super Citizen, in a Spandex suit. He encouraged people to take out their aggression on balloons rather than one another. He also had an idea for that terrible traffic.

MOCKUS: The traffic police was very corrupted. And we used mimes as a local replacement in the small part of the city of the traffic police. And we discovered…


DUBNER: Wait, wait, wait a minute, wait a minute. Excuse me, Mayor Mockus, you said you replaced the traffic police with mimes?



DUBNER: It’s maybe worth pointing out here how Mockus spells his name. It’s M-O-C-K-U-S. As in: Mock Us. Here’s Margarita Martinez again. She has directed a film about Mockus.

MARTINEZ: So for example, you were crossing the street not in the crosswalk, but, through, you know, the middle of the street, and then the mime followed you with this really funny and playful ways. And they mimic the way you walked, and how you did your hair, or whatever, and you felt that you were the worst citizen in the world. And after that, that was the lesson that you learned in your heart, you know, not in your pocket that you were shamed, shamed, profoundly shamed because of these mimes and everybody in front of you.

DUBNER: It wasn’t just the mimes. Mockus’s government handed out thousands of cards to drivers. On one side, the card had a cartoon drawing of a thumbs-up, and on the other side, a thumbs-down, a red thumbs-down, kind of like the red card that a soccer referee uses to eject a player from a game.

MARTINEZ: It was just the very polite way to change people’s behavior and to take out the anger that you had when someone did something terrible, but also the other person felt like, oh I’m being seen, people don’t agree with what I’m doing. And it was also shameful.


MOCKUS: Yes, well shaming is a way of educating.


MARTINEZ: It was this very polite way of insulting you. It seems ridiculous probably, but they really work.




ANNOUNCER: From WNYC and APM, American Public Media, this is Freakonomics Radio, the podcast that explores the hidden side of everything. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.

DUBNER: So the mayor of Bogota, Antanas Mockus, had some serious problems to solve and he thought shame might help him. From the beginning of his first term until the end of his second term, life got much better in Bogota. The homicide rate fell dramatically. Now this probably had a lot more to do with new gun laws and alcohol laws than with mimes. But observers generally agree that Mockus’s shaming techniques sent a valuable message: the rules of this city have changed, and if you need help upholding these new rules – well, we’re going to make your fellow citizens help you. Traffic fatalities also fell over the eight years that bracketed Mockus’s reign, by roughly sixty percent. Now even though most of us don’t have mimes to help shape our behavior, we do all follow cues that suggest what’s acceptable behavior and what’s not. In academic circles, they’re known as “social norms.” They are the ways we try to avoid being the nail that’s sticking out.

Robert CIALDINI: If we’re uncertain about what we should do in a situation, one shortcut way of knowing what’s probably the right thing for us to do here is to look at what our peers are doing.  

DUBNER: That’s Robert Cialdini. He’s an emeritus professor of psychology and marketing at Arizona State University.

CIALDINI: Birds flock together in very neat patterns, fish school, cattle herd, social insects swarm together. So this is something that doesn’t require a lot of cognitive capacity in order to trigger the conformity. All you need to do is to see what those around you, like you, are doing. And it’s a good shortcut to deciding what you should do in a situation.

DUBNER: Years back, Cialdini wrote a book that became a classic in business circles. It’s called Influence. His research career has been dedicated to the power of social norms. For instance, in one experiment, Cialdini wanted to know what would influence people to reduce their home-energy consumption. So, he and his researchers went around neighborhoods in San Diego hanging signs on people’s doors. They used four different versions of the sign, so they could measure the effectiveness of each one:

CIALDINI: One, the message said please reduce energy in your home in order to reduce the expenditure of resources on the planet. Another said please reduce energy consumption in the home in order to save money at the end of the month on your own bill. A third said please do this for future generations so that your children will have access to these resources. And then we had yet another that we’d never seen employed. And it said simply, the majority of your neighbors are regularly undertaking efforts to reduce energy in their homes, please follow.


DUBNER: That’s it, it doesn’t say the majority of your neighbors are doing better than you, or worse than you, it just says they’re doing stuff and we’re going to put this ball in your court now, and you should do stuff too.






CIALDINI: And then we measured their energy use at the end of the month. We were actually going into their yards, risking vicious dogs and sprinkling systems, and we looked at their energy use as a result of receiving one or another of those messages. Two interesting findings...


DUBNER: Wait, before you even give it, because if people are listening to this whether you’re a policy maker, or a parent, or a teacher, like, you’re about to tell them kind of the secret of the universe, aren’t you? Everybody wants to encourage what you call pro-social behavior, get people to do things that are collectively better for all of us. But you’re telling me that through this one experiment at least that you kind of know how all of us can be doing this thing, right?


CIALDINI: Well you’re right to use the caveat through this one experiment at least. There is one secret to the universe that we seem to under-recognize, and it is what those around us are doing powerfully influences what we choose to do next. Even though we tend to think of ourselves as free standing entities immune to the blandishments of information and evidence from those around us. No, we are powerfully influenced. And in this case, it was the only message that significantly reduced energy consumption in the home.


DUBNER: So the only one that had any effect was the one that said people around you are doing this already. It didn’t even say that they’re doing better than you or worse than you, right?


CIALDINI: Exactly right.


DUBNER: So what the heck does that mean other than, I mean, my layperson’s knee-jerk reaction is Dr. Cialdini you’re telling me that, oh, we basically are herd animals as much as we like to think that we’re not.


CIALDINI: We are at a very elemental level. Of course we are, because this is an adaptive approach to our environment.


DUBNER: Right, so, when I hear you say that, I say, well yes, that makes good sense on a scientific level and on a kind of emotional level as well. But I, and I’m guessing most people listening to this would say this as well, I’m not like that. I’m not…I don’t travel with the herd like that, I think for myself. And what I ask you now is well what kinds of people…First of all, most of us are probably wrong. We all think we’re above average certainly. And I’m probably wrong. I’m probably much more herd-like than I think. But I guess the next thing I want to know out of that is what kind of people are least susceptible to that kind of herd thinking. I’m guessing from your San Diego energy experiment we don’t know that, because we don’t know too much about the demographics of each of these individuals. Right?


CIALDINI: That’s right, but let me say that from that study we also interviewed people in those neighborhoods and asked them of these four messages—do this for the environment, do this to save money, do this for future generations, or do this because your neighbors are doing it—we asked them which of these would be most powerful in spurring you into energy conservation? The one that was by far the least rated as a motivator of their change was the one that was indeed the one that did lever their change the greatest, the one that said that your neighbors are doing this. They waved their hands at us when we asked them that question, “Oh come on I don’t care what my neighbors are doing. That’s not me.” People wanted to see themselves as independent, as orthogonal to those around them. And so, they just weren’t going to believe it. And this leads to a real problem, which is because people don’t believe that these kinds of pulls, and draws, and motives affect them powerfully, when they get into positions of developing programs to create pro-social behavior, they don’t think of this one, because when they introspect they say oh this wouldn’t work on me, why would I load it into the wording of a message designed to move people in pro-social directions?


DUBNER: But it doesn’t always work, does it? Peer information does not always work. Give me an example of where telling people what other people are doing actually might have a boomerang effect.


CIALDINI: We’ve recognized that very often public service message are designed to move people in societally desirable directions by telling them how many people are behaving in undesirable directions. So many people are drinking and driving; we have to stop this. Teenage pregnancy is so prevalent in our schools; we have to do something about this. Tax fraud is so rampant that we have to increase the penalties for it.


DUBNER: And that’s a natural instinct, right, to whip out the evidence to beat people on the head with it, right?


CIALDINI: Right, it’s a very human, but wrong-headed strategy, because the subtext message is a lot of people just like you are doing this.


DUBNER: And therefore I, too.


CIALDINI: So it normalizes, it legitimizes the undesirable behavior. We’ve actually done a study in this regard. I live in Arizona, and there’s something here called the Petrified Forest National Park. Their problem is people steal pieces of petrified wood from the forest floor and crystals very frequently. And the problem is widespread enough that it is undermining the integrity of the forest. And so, there is a sign as you enter the park that says because so many people are stealing wood from the forest floor, at the rate of nearly a ton a month, it is undermining the integrity of the forest. I had a graduate student who was working with me. And he and his fiancée went to the forest. And they saw that sign. And he said before he was finished reading it, he heard his fiancée, who he counts as the single most honest person he’s ever met in his life say to him, “We better get ours now.” What could possibly do that, take this otherwise wholly honest young woman and turn her into an environmental criminal who is depleting a national treasure in the process?


DUBNER: But also you’re thinking, well if they’re taking a ton a month, I’m only going to take a few ounces. That’s nothing compared to a ton.


CIALDINI: Yeah, and we put that sign in front of certain pathways that ran through the forest. And we salted those pathways with pieces of petrified wood. And then we looked to see what the effect of that sign was on stealing the wood that we had marked compared to a control condition that didn’t get any sign. It nearly tripled the theft.

DUBNER: Coming up: we’ve talked about using shame and we’ve talked about the intensity of herd behavior. So how about using shame to change the direction of the herd?

Andrea GOODSON: I was called the Water Nazi. Which, I’ve been called worse, so I’ll take Water Nazi.

DUBNER: We head to a development Grassland Estates in West Texas to see what happens when there’s not enough water to keep the grassland green.

Robert HALLMARK: We determined how much it would cost to hire kids to stand in your water in a bathing suit just so you could water your yard. There were some outlandish things people would do to try to get around the rule.


ANNOUNCER: From WNYC and APM, American Public Media, this is Freakonomics Radio. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.

DUBNER: Last year, parts of West Texas experienced some of the worst drought conditions in modern history. The drought caused all kinds of problems, large and small. We sent reporter Krissy Clark to Midland, Texas, to look into one problem that might have seemed small but, well, it wasn’t.

Krissy CLARK: Hi, I’m Krissy Clark


Barbie JONES: Hi, are you Krissy?

CLARK: I started in a neighborhood called Grassland Estates at the home of the Joneses. Mr. Jones, Mike, he’s in the oil business, and then there’s the Mrs.

 JONES: I’m Barbie Jones and I’m a housewife.


CLARK: And you are also the president of the…


JONES: I’m the president of the homeowners association here in Grassland, in Midland.

CLARK: As president of the homeowners association, Barbie Jones kind of sets the pace of the neighborhood. People actually try to keep up with the Joneses. And when you walk in to her house you discover it’s quite a pace. The rooms are spotless, beautifully decorated, and the whole place smells like fresh-baked cookies.

JONES: Ten dozen peanut patties and Martha Washington balls and candy cane cookies. I do muffin tins for our neighbors for the holidays.

CLARK: Muffin tins are just the beginning of what is done for the neighbors around here. In
West Texas, Barbie Jones says, neighbors are serious business.

JONES: Be neighborly. That’s my big thing as the president out here, just be neighborly.

CLARK: Neighbors are nice. They bake cookies for each other; they do each other favors. But the other thing about neighbors?

JONES: We’re pretty competitive. The vehicles we drive, the clothes we wear, the stores we shop in.

CLARK: And, especially, that status symbol of all status symbols according to pretty much anyone you ask.

JONES: A lush, well-manicured lawn.


Montage: Lush beautiful lawns. Lush green lawns. Green lush spaces.

CLARK: In Grassland estates, as the name might suggest, lawns are a very big deal. But not just there, it turns out that the lawn obsession in West Texas has deep roots.

Steve THORPE: The people that came here wanted to make it look homey.

CLARK: That’s Steve Thorpe. He works for the city of Midland. He oversees the code enforcement department. Originally, Thorpe is from Michigan. And in fact, a lot of people around here are originally from somewhere else— from other parts of Texas or other parts of the country. Most came here for one thing: the oil underneath Midland, and the booming economy it’s fueled for a very long time. But when people get here, the place is always kind of a shock.

THORPE: We’re very flat. We have miles of mesquite and buffalo grass, and all the stuff that comes with the oil industry—pumping units and wells being drilled. And we don’t have real pretty stuff on the ground

CLARK: In fact, it is so unpretty, Thorpe says, that when he agreed to take a job here, to move himself and his wife out from Michigan, the guy who hired him gave him some advice.

THORPE: He said fly her in at night, don’t bring her during the day. We don’t want her to see what this place looks like.

CLARK: And Steve says, generations of husbands and wives have been dealing with the same thing.

THORPE: If the husband came here after World War II and took a job in the oil industry and decided to bring his wife and family from the east coast. They wanted them to feel at home. And consequently we’ve got these very lush, green yards that are not appropriate. They’ve adapted to West Texas, but we’re trying to create greenery in the high desert.

CLARK: And that has, recently, posed a teeny tiny little bit of a problem.

Wes PERRY (Video): As the mayor of Midland, I would like to take a moment and inform you about the drought contingency plans.

CLARK: That’s the mayor of Midland, Wes Perry, speaking in the summer of 2011. He was making an announcement that ended up turning Midland and its neighbors on their heads. But before we get to what he said, you need to understand why he said it. You may remember that in 2011, Texas was suffering from one of the worst droughts on record. The landscape was so parched, that cattle were starving. Squirrels and skunks were starving. Wild fires were everywhere and they would burn so hot, once they consumed the vegetation, the dirt would go up in flames. I met a talk show host at a local radio station, Robert Hallmark, and he told me…

HALLMARK: You are just in a dust bowl. I mean it looks like a scene out of Star Wars all the time out here.

CLARK: And then there were the lakes? They were so dry and so low…

HALLMARK: They are finding things in these lakes—old cars. They found an old cemetery. I think they found a piece of the space shuttle that blew up over Texas.

CLARK: Two of the three reservoirs that Midland relied on for water have already dried up, and the last one is predicted to be dry by next winter if things don’t get better. The city has been looking in to many things: desalination plants, using treated waste-water for drinking water, they’ve restricted the amount of water public parks can use, and schools. But one of the things that’s caused the most trouble, was this decision, that the mayor of Midland announced in the summer of 2011.

PERRY (Video): Businesses and residents who consume city water, may only water outdoors 2 times per week.

CLARK: Of course, water restrictions really meant one thing. No more:

Montage: Lush, well-manicured lawns. Lush green lawns. Green lush spaces.

CLARK: And that’s when life in the neighborhood started to change. At first in ways you might expect. There was a lot of grumbling about the new water rules. Sarcastic jokes:

Radio clip: News Talk 550 KCRS. You can still turn it on, every day!

CLARK: Robert Hallmark, the radio host, says people started looking for creative loopholes to get around the restrictions. It was a favorite topic on his show.

HALLMARK: We jokingly had a good time about the Slip ‘N Slide rule.


Radio clip: I was about to say Slip ‘N Slide sales have gone up tremendously. Oh baby I’m telling you!


HALLMARK: The Slip ‘N Slide rule was that you could operate a Slip ‘N Slide in your front yard for the kids anytime you wanted to. Now you know as well as I do a Slip ‘N Slide is nothing but just, you know, a water hose with holes in it, that is just pouring water out onto the lawn. Now the rule was, though, that kids had to be sitting there playing on the Slip ‘N Slide. So we determined how much it would cost to hire kids to stand in your yard in a bathing suit just so you could water your yard. There were some outlandish things people would do to try to get around the rule.

CLARK: Like this:

Carlos CORTEZ: I think it was like 5 o’clock one morning.

CLARK: That’s Carlos Cortez.

CORTEZ: And we’re driving. Just going down the block.

CLARK: Cortez works for Odessa, the city next to Midland, which around the same time, also put in rules about how often you could water your lawn during the drought. To enforce the rules, the city formed water patrol team that Cortez was on. And it was his job to go out on night-sweeps to make sure people were following the rules. Their first night out, they were headed down a cul-de-sac when they spotted a shadowy figure, holding a hose.

CORTEZ: You could see him—he was hiding between the two houses watering. We made a u-turn, and came back around to see if you know so we could talk to him. And next thing you know when we made the u-turn and came back around, we looked at each other, like. I mean he wasn’t there. He was just gone. When he saw the truck apparently he just dropped his water hose and somehow he went around through the back gate, and that was it.


CLARK: So he was hiding? He was hiding from you guys?


CORTEZ: Not only hiding from us—because he wasn’t aware that we were running around through there—I think he was hiding from the other neighbors.

CLARK: Why would he be hiding from the other neighbors? Here’s where the plot thickens. Because once it became clear that rules alone were not going to stop the citizens of West Texas from watering their lawns everyday, local leaders in Midland and Odessa combined the rules with something else. Shame. It started innocently enough. In Midland, the city printed out yellow fliers, bright yellow, and circulated them. People were encouraged people to put them on the doors of neighbors who were breaking the watering rules. In big letters, the fliers said “Hello Neighbor!” and then had little boxes you could check showing exactly what that neighbor was doing wrong. They caught on pretty quickly.

JONES: You could tell those that were watering.

CLARK: That’s Barbie Jones again, president of the Grassland Homeowners Association in Midland and former champion of green lawns.

JONES: Their yards still looked very nice.

CLARK: Too nice, really. You see, Jones, who had once been a champion of the well-watered, lush green lawn, had become one of the early adopters of this new drought-conscious trend. And if someone wasn’t on board with that, she knew what to do.

JONES: If you see someone not watering accordingly, you know, that’s not being neighborly. So it’s better to go to them and say hey, you’re not following the rules.

CLARK: It wasn’t just the yellow “hello neighbor” fliers that encouraged this approach. Around the same time the fliers came out, the mayor of Midland came on that radio talk show to announce a new “water violation hotline” the city had set up. Robert Hallmark, the radio host, interviewed the mayor about it.  

HALLMARK: We had him in the studio. And really he was suggesting that hey if your neighbor is not watering on the right day, then call the city and we’ll go out and talk to them. And I’m saying so you’re asking people to turn on each other. And he didn't see it quite that way. He says “No! It’s just a friendly reminder that we’re all here together!”

CLARK: I asked the mayor, Wes Perry, about this, and he admits he was wrong about the hotline.

PERRY: I’d call it a tattle line. It was crazy.


CLARK: The mayor heard from some people who actually came to blows -- fistfights over the rules.


PERRY: I mean, it’s the Hatfields and McCoys going on. It was wild.


Recording: Thank you for calling the city of Odessa water hotline.

CLARK: Odessa, Midland’s neighboring city, had a “tattletale line” too.

Recording: If you have a complaint you would like to file, please leave the address, date, time and issue after the tone.

CLARK: The voice behind that message is Andrea Goodson, though now she has been given another name…

GOODSON: I was called the “Water Nazi.”

CLARK: The Water Nazi.

GOODSON: Which, I’ve been called worse, so I’ll take Water Nazi.

CLARK: For a while, Goodson was getting all the water hotline calls funneled to her phone number.

GOODSON: We were probably averaging easily a thousand or so a day, no problem.


CLARK: That’s a lot of phone calls.


GOODSON: Yes. And people would be calling at 3 o’clock in the morning. Uh, my neighbor’s watering. Click! Okay!

CLARK: She showed me a log where they kept notes from the messages, flipped to a random day last fall, and started reading down the page.

GOODSON: Water running down the street. Waters all the time. Watering during the mornings on Tuesday. Watering with a hose. Sprinkler head broken. Water going down the street. Um...

CLARK: Andrea’s coworker, Darlene, peeked over the log and summarized.

Darlene: Water, water, water, water, water!

CLARK: So this is starting to sound familiar, right? Like the story you heard earlier in the show about people stealing wood and crystals from the Petrified Forest. What it all comes down to is that people compare their own behavior to those around them. The mayor of Midland, Wes Perry, tells a story about how, a few years ago, as the drought was starting, the city created a map, to get a better picture of how much water different people were using in the city. The map went house by house. The highest water users were colored bright green. The lowest water users were colored dark brown.

PERRY: The first thing you’d do is go and look.


CLARK: You’d scan the map until you found your house. And then?

PERRY: Depending on what your neighbor was doing, if you were out of sync, you would immediately say something like, ooh I’ve got to change my habits.

CLARK: So, say you lived in a neighborhood where people didn’t use a lot of water, and most of the lots were colored brown…

PERRY: If you were too green you would change direction.

CLARK: Say, “I need to use less water.”


PERRY: Exactly. But the other side would happen too.

CLARK: Say you lived in a neighborhood where people used a lot of water, and most of the lots were bright green. If you were one of the only brown ones…

PERRY: You had some of those that said, oh I guess I need to start using more water because everyone around me is.

CLARK: Perry says, it was like a contagion. The amount of water a person thought he should use seemed to less to do with his personality or how environmentally conscious he was, instead, it had to do with how much the people around him were using.

PERRY: At the end of the day we want to know that we’re with a group. We’re part of... we’re not completely alone.


Rick ARELLANO and Ponce GARZA: Look at that. Oh man. Right here. Look at that. Oh yeah. He watered. Yeah.

CLARK: One morning when I was in Midland, I went out on a water patrol with two of the city workers, Rick Arellano and Ponce Garza. Some people call them the “water SWAT team.”

ARELLANO and GARZA: Go down the alley. Yeah. Even with snow on the ground, people are still watering! What sense does that make?

CLARK: It almost never snows in Midland, but there had been a freak snowstorm the day before we went out. Which sadly didn’t do much to help the overall drought situation. But Garza and Arellano had a hunch that even on a below-freezing day, with a couple inches of snow on the ground, some people would still be watering.

We drove around some neighborhoods, and stopped at some of the places you could tell had been watering. Garza got out to show me.

GARZA: See where the sprinkler heads have already eaten away at the snow.


CLARK: Yeah. You’re kind of like a forensic scientist.


GARZA: We try and do a little bit of everything.

CLARK: In an hour they wrote up seven warnings of watering violations. Then we got to a part of town that looked familiar.

CLARK: Oh, this is Grassland. This is where Barbie lives, on this street.

CLARK: And, I wanted to check up on the president of the Grassland Homeowners Association, Barbie Jones. I wanted to check up on the Joneses.

CLARK: I want to drive by her house and see if she has been watering.

CLARK: I fumbled around for the address, and we found the place.

ARELLANO: It’s right there. Yeah.


CLARK: How’s it look guys?


ARELLANO: Looks dry.


PONCE: Looks dry. Yeah, she’s doing a good job.

DUBNER: That’s Marketplace reporter Krissy Clark in Midland, Texas. So social norms are tricky. It’s hard to tell what kind of shaming and peer pressure will work and what might backfire. I called up Steve Levitt, my Freakonomics friend and co-author. He’s an economist at the University of Chicago.

LEVITT: From an economic perspective, shame is a wonderful punishment because unlike imprisonment, it’s free. It’s not only free that society can impose as much shame as they want on people without any kind of cost or resources used up, but in fact, the rest of society actually likes it when other people get shamed. People love to read in The National Enquirer or The New York Times about the shame that comes down on public people. So it’s actually a really incredibly efficient mechanism for punishing people who do things we don’t like. The only thing that’s hard about it, the only real shortcoming associated with shame is that someone’s got to be willing to be shamed. So for instance, after we published Freakonomics, some of my colleagues were not that wild about the book and the attention we received. So to try to shame me, one of my colleagues put up anonymously on the bulletin board for the department of economics a supposed quote from me that said, they claimed that I had said that, “Mathematics was not required to understand reality.” Right? And this was supposed to be the most shameful, embarrassing quote. And the idea was that if it was known publicly that I had said this that it would ruin my reputation and I would feel awful about myself. But in fact it had just the opposite effect because I don’t think mathematics is necessary to understand reality, and indeed I took tremendous satisfaction from the idea that I stood apart from the profession in believing this thing, which I think is obviously true. So while the intention of the act was to shame me, I’ve still got that sign up in my office. And I get utility out of it every single day when I walk in and I see it.


DUBNER: Thanks as always for downloading this Freakonomics Radio podcast. Until the next time, we’ll leave you with the sound of… a mime directing traffic in Bogota.  Enjoy.



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  1. Sanity says:

    You missed relating the eternal battle into this commentary; no, not between good and evil. The battle between shame and stubbornness. In addition to the “Would you jump off a bridge if your friends(neighbors) did?” My family, for one, has a stubborn streak that can, but know always, push us in the opposite direction. On the good side, it helps resist bad peer pressure. In this case, just because everyone else is doing it, does not convince me they know why they are doing it. Like this who put solar panels on the shade side of their house to APPEAR ‘green’, I grow more and more skeptical.

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    • Enter your name... says:

      I sometimes do this deliberately. Well, both of these things.

      On the stubborn or contrarian front, I sometimes deliberately go against the herd. Consumer confidence is up? I go on a spending strike. Everyone goes out for dinner on Friday nights? Dinner will always be at home on Fridays. Everyone buys flowers for Valentine’s Day? I refuse to have them in the house on that day.

      But I do it the other way, too, by deliberately outsourcing as much of my decision making as practical to the herd: Sorting Amazon’s search results by popularity is almost always the fastest path to finding the item I wanted, or if there are multiple listings for the same item, to finding the best price for it. If “everyone” has decided that Google is the best search engine, then I’ll use it, too.

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  2. Howard Brazee says:

    As I was listening to this, I kept thinking that we live in a time when we “herd” can be very different from the past. We go on the Internet and find members of herds which that others find to be quite extreme. But we can join them and adjust to fit them.

    As ever, we see our herd as being the norm – even though most see it as being extreme.

    This obviously has its dangers to greater society, but it also has benefits.

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  3. Rob says:

    Shame is a driving force in Confucianism. The idea being that if a person is taught to feel shame, then the punishment precedes the crime and may prevent it.

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  4. Chris Land says:

    Really interesting show today. It reminded me of a study that I heard about on NPR. It turns out that the likelihood of dying in the world trade center attacks was most greatly informed by the number of people in the particular office. In small offices, it was more likely that a single person would leave and the rest of the office would follow. In larger groups, people were more likely to wait around to see what other people did. Many of those who lingered, died.

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  5. Gustas says:

    Yey for Lithuania! :) Antanas Mockus is lithuanian!

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    • James says:

      No, he’s a Columbian. Sure, his ancestors – like those of many Columbians & Americans – immigrated from somewhere else, but that doesn’t affect him.

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  6. Ritty says:

    Speaking of “herds,” I wonder how the shame spiral idea of getting groups of people to stop a particular behavior could or should be applied to the obesity epidemic.

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    • James says:

      Problem is, the herd mentality works both ways. The herd (prompted by advertising driven by the profits inherent in e.g. fast food) has already stampeded in the direction of overeating.

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    • Craig says:

      Do you really believe that we have an obesity epidemic because there is insufficient shaming of fat people? Are you kidding me?

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  7. Jeremy Hofman says:

    We’re having an argument over our company’s social network over this very topic regarding some people’s ability to have very messy desks with potentially confidential information out in the open. Someone posted an anonymous (or what was supposed to be anonymous) picture of the desk asking “Do you wonder why the cleaning staff doesn’t bother to clean around your desk?”

    Clear Desk (not Clean Desk) policies are put in place for security reasons. Not surprisingly, the person who identified their desk as the subject of shaming complained because the picture may have been showing confidential information…pretty ironic.

    They were able to get the picture removed and some management weighed in with some off the wall examples of how it could get out of hand to “spread fear” of being criticized for grammar, dress, performance, etc, and saying, “Management by humiliation is not an option”. I asked how many of them clean their houses before having company over and why. I then encouraged them to listen to the podcast or read the transcript to see if they still agree with their initial reaction.

    Sure, its not right for management to humiliate people, but it wasn’t management doing the shaming. It was the employees self-policing and I argued that the subject of ridicule had it in his or her power to prevent the event from even occurring. By management taking their position, I also argued that their very close to nullifying their own policy and that they should really be more careful before debating their own policies.

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  8. Ldarley4 says:

    We’ve known a lot a our the forces of peer pressure for going on 50 years now: Milgram, Zimbardo, the most famous. Especially Zimbardo’s “the lucifer effect”. Even further back, Balise Pascal’s “Culture is our nature.” time to use this very old knowledge

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