Positive Peer Pressure
Peer pressure has gotten a bad reputation. Typically this phrase elicits anxieties about the possible negative influence teens may have on each other. In reality, as social beings we are all influenced by peer pressure. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Take for example an annual event here in southern California and in many communities around the country: coastal cleanup day. This is a day when people are encouraged to come together to pick up trash from beaches and neighborhoods to prevent trash from draining into the ocean. Divers search for debris in the water and come up with things that clearly don’t belong there: lawn furniture, car parts, and other refuse that can harm marine life.
According to the Los Angeles Times, more than 14,000 volunteers picked up 50 tons of trash across the county recently. This was a really impressive accomplishment that made me think of the power of others to influence our behavior—often in positive ways. While we could all pick up trash that others left behind any day of the year, most people do not.
One woman is a notable exception, so notable that the Los Angeles Times featured her daily efforts to clean the beach in a separate story. Sara Bayles spends twenty minutes a day picking up trash on the beach on her own, catalogues and writes a blog about what she finds. In six months she alone picked up more than 600 pounds of trash. Cleaning up isn’t a terribly hard thing to do, but most of us don’t do it on our own.
The trash story made me think of the ways peer pressure may influence me (individually we tend to think others are influenced by peers, but typically see ourselves as immune). I hike regularly, mostly with a group. Being with a group provides safety, but it also makes me hike longer than I would on my own. The social aspect serves as a distraction from feeling tired, and I want to keep going if the group keeps going, trusting the leader to take us in the right direction and avoid getting lost. Finishing in the front of the group makes me feel a sense of accomplishment, and I can admit that I can be a little competitive. I probably hike faster when I am with others for this reason.
You might have heard in the news that our social networks can influence our weight. Researchers concluded that those around us comprise our frame of reference and shape how we evaluate our own weight and health. Being around a lot of fit people can serve as positive peer pressure, which is why weight loss advice often encourages people to find a buddy to workout with.
Social psychologists like Philip Zimbardo have documented how being part of a group shapes our behavior and makes us do things we might never do on our own. People around us influence and shape our behavior, whether we are aware of their influence or not.
Stanford sociologist Clifford Nass even argues that we interact with computers in a similar way. His book, The Man Who Lied to His Laptop: What Machines Teach Us about Human Relationships, is based on his many experiments with people and computers.
For instance, Nass found that common social niceties like using praise or flattery instead of criticism makes people have more favorable attitudes about a computer. Yes—Nass found that people react to the way computers interact with them as though they were human. This is why the old Microsoft Word icon, Clippy, elicited such negative reaction. Clippy would show up and wink at you occasionally, and ask whether it could help you while working on a Word document. Clippy was annoying, and Nass found that people tended to react to the icon as though it were an annoying person.
In one experiment, Nass programmed the computer his subjects used to provide flattery in response to some questions. He told one group that the computer’s responses were very accurate and based on years of research. He told the other group that they hadn’t finished the software yet and the comments they would receive were completely random. A third group received no computer feedback.
Respondents who received flattering comments (like “clever” or “ingenious”) from the computer reported positive feelings, noting its accuracy, regardless of whether they were told the comments were accurate or random. Nass’s subjects—computer science students—might have consciously thought the feedback wasn’t important, but they felt good regardless.
Nass did another experiment in which subjects tested software. One group tested it on a computer they had been working with; another group tested it on a separate (but identical) computer. He found that subjects liked the software better if they used it on the computer they had been using already. He concluded that “they unconsciously felt they had to be polite to the computer” they had a previous “relationship” with. We might feel peer pressure to be nice even when our “peer” is an inanimate object.
Yes, peer pressure might encourage us to do horrible things. Stanley Milgram's famous experiment suggests that people might obey authorities who ask us to harm others. Solomon Asch also conducted a well-known experiment where people were asked to judge the length of a line; when others in the room all agreed with the wrong answer, subjects tended to agree with the wrong answer as well.
But peer pressure can be positive, whether it encourages us to clean up, stay healthy, or think positively about ourselves. How else might peer pressure act as a positive force?