The Science of Peer Pressure
What would you do if you were in a waiting room and smoke began to come through the vents? Before you answer, you should ask who is in the room with you. Astoundingly, researchers have found that who is in the room with you greatly affects your response to this odd situation. Scientists, Latane and Darley set-up three different groups. As each group filled-out papers in a waiting room, smoke would fill the room through an air vent. In the first group, there was only one subject in the room and he or she left and reported the smoke 75% of the time. In the second group three people were in the room, but two of the people were part of the study and were instructed to act unconcerned. In this scenario, only 10% of the unknowing person reported the smoke and left the room! In the third group, none of the three participants in the waiting room knew about the experiment and 38% of them left and reported the smoke.
I think this experiment adds a new dimension to peer pressure. Often times, we focus on peer pressure as a demand from friends to do something. This experiment talks about the peer pressure to not do something. For parents, I think this study has interesting ramifications because it speaks to a kind of peer pressure we often forget to talk about: limiting peer pressure. We hear about the peer pressure for teens to smoke, drink, have sex or rebel. But we do not talk about the peer pressure that limits teens from acting in their own best interests. Like the participants in the research study, we will often act in our own best interest when we are by ourselves. Yet, when other people are with us (and these are strangers, not even friends telling us what to do) we suddenly doubt our intuition and 90% of us actually disregard it. How does this apply to teens today?
1) Pressure not to leave a peer group
The pressure not to leave a bad peer group is tremendous. It is one of the things that drives parents crazy when they see their teenagers hanging out with a bad crowd. Even when (and sometimes teens do not realize quite how bad of an influence their friends can be) teens do realize they should leave their peer group, the pressure to stay overrides their judgment. As adults, this study made me think twice about being so tough on teenagers who hang around bad friends. Peer group conformity is very strong, even when your life is at risk (people did not leave even when smoke filled the room).
2) Pressure not to try a new activity
I also find it difficult to get teens to try new activities without their friends. If you are a parent who has ever tried to get your teen to try a new sport, or go to a new summer camp without your child’s usual group of friends, you know what an uphill battle this can be. Part of this push back is because teens want to be with their friends, but part of it is the unconscious pressure not to stray from the wishes and actions of a group.
3) Pressure not to change
The teenage years are a period of tremendous change—and they should be. This is when young people are supposed to be experimenting with their identity, their personality and their boundaries. Yet, this does not often happen. In fact I felt more pressure to be ‘what everyone thought I should be’ when I was a teenager than now, at the age of 25. Teenagers often tell a story to themselves about themselves. Friends also do this with each other. They kindly (or not so kindly) label other members of their peer group—the smart one, the free-spirit, the creative one, the jokester. These labels are comfortable, but stunt a teenagers freedom and ability to change and grow.
I think it is really important for parents to talk about this kind of peer pressure not to act and change in addition to friends pushing each other into bad activities. Try asking your teenager:
What story do you think you tell about yourself? Do you give yourself a label?
What story or label have your friends given you?
What would happen if you wanted to change this?
Has there ever been a time where you wanted to try something but your friends said or acted like you shouldn’t?
And finally, ask them is they believe in the peer pressure not to act and if it can stunt people’s growth and personalities. Would they have reported the smoke?
Latane, Bibb and John M. Darley. “Group inhibition of bystander intervention in emergencies.” Journal of personality and social psychology. Vol 10 (3) 1968, 215-221.