Peer pressure is a strangely paradoxical phenomenon. On the one hand when we experience peer pressure we feel the need to comply in order to win the respect and good favour of our contemporaries – but at the same time it is almost always the case that in doing so we end losing our own self respect and even getting ourselves hurt or in trouble.
The obvious and classic case of peer pressure is in the school playground when we begin to reach our teen years. Suddenly everyone around us is smoking because it’s ‘cool’ but we’re well aware that as a habit it is only destructive causing addiction, cancer and breathing conditions such as emphysema. Yet when all your friends are smoking and the guy/girl you fancy is watching you, saying no can mean branding yourself a social outcast.
While we associate peer pressure with the playground and our formative years, it in fact applies to people of all ages and you probably deal with it just as much now as you ever have. For instance you might well experience peer pressure when socializing still – whether it’s to smoke, drink a little more or to use recreational drugs. At work you can also find yourself a victim of peer pressure as your colleagues attempt to influence your decisions and your actions – whether it means staying on longer at work, rebelling, or making particular decisions about the direction of your work.
So the question is, how do you go about dealing with peer pressure and staying true to yourself when people are trying to influence you? Here we will look at the answers to those questions.
What Is Peer Pressure?
Firstly, understanding peer pressure a little better can help us to see through it and to respond more appropriately. The reality is that peer pressure is just normal ‘social’ pressure and this is something that affects humans simply as social creatures. In business and sociology this is sometimes called ‘convergence’ which is the observed likelihood of groups to gradually become more and more alike one another (the opposite of divergence, where members of different groups are more likely to become less like members of other groups). This simply helps us to forge a social identity, but also helps us to rise through the ranks of that group and ensure we stay accepted.
In short we have evolved to want to become more like members of our group in order to ensure that we aren’t thrown out and to help us improve our status thus getting better access to food and mates. This ‘pack’ instinct helps us from being too ‘different’ from our peers. Usually the ring leader in this pressure is the ‘alpha male’ of the group who is exercising their dominance over the group.
At the same time though there are other things going on here too. For instance there is the strong urge to be ‘polite’ and to get people to like us and to be happy. This is an absurdly strong urge and one that can propel us to act against our better judgement simply in order to avoid disappointing someone.
Milgram is a famous psychologist who carried out a variety of experiments on how far we are willing to go in order to comply with demand. This was based more on ‘obedience’ rather than social pressure, but it is a similar mechanism. What Milgram found to the concern of commentators, was that we would fact be willing to deliver a seemingly lethal electric shock to a complete stranger if compelled to do so by someone who exhibited signals of social dominance.
How to Overcome It
So how do you go about overcoming this? Well ultimately it comes down to a matter of willpower, and to knowing that the long term benefits of rebelling will be greater than the short term benefits of complying.
The reality is that if we are to comply in the short term, we don’t only lose our self respect and go against our own wishes, but we also actually lose the respect of others as well. This is where the real paradox lies – because in trying to impress those around us, we actually reveal weakness.
When the ‘leaders’ of a group exert pressure and the group complies, this cements their status as the alphas in the group and makes them appear more dominant. Of course though this also by the same token means that by complying you exhibit your submissiveness and lack of individuality. You are in other words communicating that you are the less dominant party which of course does nothing to advance your reputation.
If you want to improve your reputation then, you need to strike out on your own and demonstrate your lack of concern for what others think of you. By acting outside of social norms you can actually demonstrate you are a bold decision maker and this will make others want to follow you. If that means that you can also steer your group in a better direction then this is of course a highly desirable situation to be in.
So imagine you are back in that playground and a couple of your friends are goading you into smoking. You can either submit – at which point they’re probably laugh because you’re degrading yourself by doing something you don’t want to – or you can make a stand and refuse, which will surprise those trying to influence you and demonstrate you are strong willed and confident. You’ll likely find as well that others in the group who probably felt the same way will want to take your lead at which point you may become their adopted leader.
How to Strike Out
Of course this is going to take some courage on your part and you might find it difficult to say no to someone. There are two ways to go about it.
The first is to be confident and decisive and attempt to ‘neutralize’ the attempt to influence you. For instance then, if someone asked if you wanted to smoke you could just answer ‘no I’m not that insecure’. This way you have demonstrated your confidence and independence whilst exposing the underlying psychological mechanisms. This then leaves you in a stronger position – but it takes conviction and is only appropriate when you are offended by the suggestion. It takes guts, but that’s what makes it effective and ensures people respond well.
To make this work you have to be more willing to look bad than the others are. In other words then you must be willing to lose face and walk away on your own if you have to – it’s that fearlessness that will give you the upper hand.
If you don’t have this kind of assertiveness then you can learn to develop it by losing some of your social inhibitions and by becoming more independent. The best way to gain independence is to become happy to do things on your own – force yourself to be alone sometimes and develop hobbies and interests of your own. At the same time make sure that you have more than one social circle that you can turn to. This way, if you find yourself being ‘ostracised’ from one group, you know you will have other places you can feel you belong.
But what you will find is that this is very unlikely to happen. This is because while you are trying to overcome the desire to be liked, this is still a strong compulsion in everyone else. The fact is that they don’t want to lose friends any more than you do, and if you are stronger willed they will likely bend to be more like you. To build up to these bigger rebellions you should practice simply disagreeing with people more often and speaking your mind – you’ll find that people are surprised and likely to change their opinions just to concur with yours.
Politely Saying No
If however you have no steak in shooting down those who are trying to influence you, then you can more politely and subtly say no. This simply requires you to be polite and to make an excuse or to pass up the invitation in a polite way. Often infusing self-deprecating humor can help here. So for instance to use the cigarettes example again, you might simply note that your shy demeanour can’t pull off the use of cigarettes without looking ridiculous. It will get a laugh and it warm people to you without unnecessary confrontation. And at the same time, while you are being self-mocking, the astute in the group will notice that in order to do so you are actually demonstrating how little you are concerned about other opinions – which will make you seem confident and ‘cool’ as a result.
All these methods will work in business and adult social situations as well. As long as you are confident in yourself, and you don’t desperately ‘need’ the approval of others you will not only be able to live life the way you want to, but also actually improve your reputation and social standing.