What peer pressure are you under?
As adults we often think of peer pressure as something that affects kids or teens. Maybe we should more accurately call it social pressure. Social pressure is defined by the Psychology Dictionary as “the influence that is exerted on a person or group by another person or group. It includes rational argument, persuasion, conformity and demands.”
Humans and other pack animals prosper through social learning theory. This theory emphasizes how, by observing the behaviors of others, the actions of the individual are influenced. For example, in learning how to do a new activity, I might watch another person, and try to do what they do. Social convention typically determines what people consider appropriate behavior.
But what happens when our own standard of behavior, beliefs or ideas go against the majority?
Landmark study on social pressure
In the early 1950s, one of the most popular social psychology experiments was conducted in the area of social influence and conformity. Individual participants were put into groups with actors who intentionally responded incorrectly. Essentially, there was an obvious answer to a line judgment task so if the participant gave an incorrect answer, it was clearly due to group pressure.
Researchers counted the number of times each participant conformed to the majority view. On average, about one-third (32 percent) of the participants who were placed in this situation went along and conformed with the clearly incorrect majority. At the end of the trials, about 75 percent of participants conformed at least once, and only 25 percent of participants never conformed.
By contrast, in the control group, with no pressure from the actors of the study, fewer than 1 percent of participants gave the wrong answer. When interviewed after the experiment, most participants reported they did not believe their conforming answers, but went along with the answers of the group for fear of being ridiculed or thought “peculiar.” The study concluded that people conform for two main reasons: because they want to fit in and because they believe the group is better informed than they.
This draw to conform can be even stronger in real-life situations where influences are more ambiguous and difficult to judge. Subsequent studies included additional factors that influence social conformity, such as difficulty of tasks, social status of confederates, and group size. Many media outlets and political movements use these tactics in our culture, especially today.
For example, something innocuous like seeing a preview for a movie, then hearing your friends talk about it might convince you to see it and even say you liked it. More significant situations can include social pressure about medical decisions. Statements from political groups, newspapers, even celebrities either for or against medical treatment and prevention can have a significant impact. These organizations know that with enough confederate influence, potentially three-quarters of the population could ultimately conform to the majority.
Strength in social support
In the above-mentioned study, however, there was something that changed the outcome of conformity: social support. The level of conformity was directly related to how many actors were in the group. If just one other person answered correctly, conformity dropped dramatically. This ally of the truth brought conformity down 65-70 percent. Subsequent studies have supported this finding, suggesting that social support is an important tool in combating conformity and social pressure.
So if you find yourself in a situation where the world and people around you appear to go against what you know to be true, find someone with whom to stand. Having just one other person that supports your observation, makes standing up to opposition easier. Decide what you will do before you get into the situation. This is a common strategy when talking with teens or kids, and the same principle works for adults. If you are asked to give your perspective or share information about something that has the potential to be controversial, have a plan prior to the conversation. Once you are engaged in a conversation, be aware that just because others may not agree with you, it does not mean you need to compromise what you are willing to say. It is entirely appropriate to communicate in an assertive and respectful way, giving the information you believe to be true.
Social pressure affects adults, not just kids and teens. Always be on the lookout for how we are being persuaded to think or act in accordance with a differing agenda. Knowing you have an ally can give you confidence to stick with the truth, not conform to the majority view just because others choose to.
Candyce Braker is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist practicing in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties.