Parents and Peer Pressure Revisited
By Bryan Caplan
About a year ago, Robin and I disagreed about the importance of parental peer pressure. I said:
Robin’s functionalist account: It assumes that other parents care about
your parenting far more than they actually do. In reality, most
parents are too tired and preoccupied to worry if somebody else‘s parents aren’t “adultish” enough.
Bryan presumes we care less about the judgments others make when they
make snappier judgments. Yet we all care about how our surface
features appear to others, especially when those others make
snap judgments – after all if they judged more carefully, our inner
beauty might shine through. And the busier are other parents, the
snappier are their judgments.
Robin’s right to claim that sometimes we should take superficial first impressions seriously. If you’re applying for a job, you want good credentials so your resume doesn’t go straight to the circular file.
The key elements in this story are (a) high rewards, and (b) high
search costs… People try really
hard to make a good impression, and anyone who fails to make a good
impression pays a heavy price.
However, this is only one
scenario. Here’s a more common one: Almost nothing is at stake, so
almost no one is paying attention. Even if you make a great
impression, the rewards are trivial. And since the rewards are
trivial, it’s hard to make a good or bad impression, because people have their minds on other topics. Frankly, they don’t give a damn.
Fast forward to the present, when Robin’s latest post tempted to declare retroactive victory in our earlier debate:
Today we live in communities so big that, outside of
smaller networks of neighbors or coworkers, rumors only reliably tell
everyone about extreme norm violations. Informal rumors will not tell
most people you deal with about your norm violations.
On closer reading, however, Robin has a simple way out: To say that for practical purposes, parents reside in much smaller communities than they seem. Like farmers, parents…
…live in larger social networks of roughly thousands of folks near
enough by to matter. This is small enough for rumors to tell most
everyone about big norm violations, but too big for everyone to know
Ultimately, though, I don’t find this “out” convincing. Modern parents’ depend primarily on the market, not other parents – to meet their needs – and parent-on-parent sanctions are small and sporadic in any case.