Peer Pressure Is a Better Motivator Than Cash

Photo: Mareen Fischinger/Getty Images/Westend61

When you’re a kid, peer pressure is typically framed as something to resist: It’s the villain in those movies you were forced to watch in a health class about the dangers of teen drinking, or name-checked in a hypothetical question about all your friends jumping off bridges.

And, true, no one wants to be a total pushover, no matter how old you are. But as Susanna Gallani, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, recently wrote in Harvard Business Review, there are times when peer pressure can come in handy: In the workplace, it can be a powerful motivator in helping co-workers pitch in toward a collective goal.

In a new working paper, Gallani and her colleagues examined data from a California hospital running a three-month program to improve hand-washing. If all employees met the hygiene target — remembering to wash their hands right before and right after dealing with every patient — they’d all receive a $1,200 bonus. Ordinarily, workers received quarterly feedback about the hospital’s progress towards it hygiene goal; for the duration of the program, they got a report card every other week.

But there was a snag in the way the incentives were set up: “According to California law, physicians cannot be hospital employees (as opposed to, say, nurses or technicians),” Gallani explained, meaning that they were exempt from the bonus — and, by extension, from the motivation to be extra-vigilant about hand hygiene. To make up for it, all the other employees in the hospital who were up for bonuses devised a few strategies to keep the doctors on target, like setting up public displays to cheer the ones who were getting better about hand-washing and sending individualized emails to the slackers reminding them to be team players.

To determine whether the improvements in hand-washing behavior would stick around after the bonuses had been paid out, Gallani and her colleagues compared report cards from the quarter immediately preceding the program to the two quarters after the program wrapped up. The results: The workers who had a cash incentive to do better did improve, but once the program was over, they typically failed to sustain that progress, eventually slipping back to baseline. The doctors, though, mostly kept up the progress they’d made. “That is, while monetary incentives generated a more pronounced improvement, it was short lived,” she wrote. “On the other hand, peer pressure techniques generated a change in organizational behavior that persisted beyond the removal of the incentive.”

The study lines up with past research showing that paying people to do things doesn’t always work; oftentimes, it backfires, leaving them less interested in the task at hand than they were before the extra money entered the equation. Bribing them with cash and snacks may work in the short term, but in the long run, the most powerful motivator of all may be the desire to fit in.

Peer Pressure Is a Better Motivator Than Cash