Peer pressure occurs when a peer group exerts direct or indirect pressure to do certain actions. The term “peer” often refers to people one knows in real life and who have a similar social status to oneself. However, peer pressure can also be exerted by the larger culture. For example, television shows can convey to the public an acceptable way to behave, even though the people on TV do not know every individual they are influencing.
Peer pressure can not only bring about changes in behavior, but also thoughts, opinions, and feelings. While peer pressure is most frequently used to describe the influence of friends on teenagers, all people can be subject to peer pressure. When a person has been pressured into unhealthy habits, a counselor can help the individual reevaluate and change their behavior.
Types of Peer Pressure
Peer pressure can be active or passive.
- Active peer pressure describes a situation where a person tries to convince someone else to do something. For example, two friends might encourage a third friend to drive above the speed limit since “everyone drives that fast anyway.”
- Passive peer pressure refers to modeled or mimicked behavior. Someone with several friends who text while driving may be more likely to text and drive themselves. They may reason that their friends text and drive, so it must not be so bad.
Passive peer pressure, sometimes called unspoken pressure, may have more influence over behavior than active peer pressure. Unspoken pressure may be harder to resist because it can seem easier to go along with the crowd in order to fit in, especially when there’s no explicit pressure to do something. People who don’t feel pushed into something may have a harder time finding an opportunity to refuse.
Many people consider peer pressure a negative thing, but this isn’t always the case. People, especially teens and young adults, may be more likely to do prosocial behaviors when they see people their own age doing the same things. For example, research has shown that teens with friends who volunteer are more likely to volunteer themselves.
Other examples of positive behavior might include:
- Attending school regularly and participating in class
- Taking time for physical activity
- Practicing kindness and compassion
Peer Pressure Among Youth
Though peer pressure is often thought of as something that happens primarily during adolescence, research suggests peer pressure begins in elementary school, often around the age of 9.
At this age, research suggests, group dynamics begin to form among children, and some may be excluded from the larger group. Children may begin to worry about balancing a sense of loyalty to their friends with compassion and fairness to others.
Those who start out being able to stand up to peer pressure may find it becomes more difficult to go against the group over time. But it’s important to realize that not only do younger children face peer pressure, they are also able to stand up to it. Parents and teachers who are aware of peer pressure among young children can begin helping their children develop the tools to resist it earlier, which may reduce its impact.
Peer Pressure and Addiction
Research has long shown peer pressure can increase the risk someone will try drugs, alcohol, or cigarettes. Some people are more affected by peer pressure than others, just as some people are more likely to experience addiction than others. While some people may experiment with alcohol or drugs once or twice and decide it’s not for them, others who begin using a substance may find it difficult to quit. In some cases, people may continue using the substance as part of social activity, such as drinking at parties or smoking because everyone else is taking a smoke break.
Unspoken peer pressure can play a significant role in substance use.If friends are drinking, smoking, or using drugs, someone who would avoid using these substances on their own may feel that participation will help them fit in with friends. Seeing peers use substances regularly can also give the impression that the substances are safe to use or won’t have any negative effects.
Unspoken pressure to conform can play a significant role in substance use. According to a 2012 study, passive peer pressure has a greater effect on teen smoking than active pressure. In other words, teens with friends who smoke are more likely to also smoke.
Positive peer pressure, on the other hand, can help prevent substance abuse and addiction. Research suggests simply having friends who choose not to smoke, use drugs, or drink alcohol can make it less likely young people will use substances.
Peer Pressure Experiments
Numerous experiments have documented the susceptibility of even highly intelligent people to peer pressure. Some of the more well-known experiments include:
- The Asch Conformity Experiments: These demonstrated that a test subject would give incorrect answers to a vision test if pressured to do so by peers’ incorrect answers. The test revealed that one peer exerts minimum pressure and that pressure is maximized with four peers. More than four peers exerted the same effect as four peers.
- The Third Wave Experiment: This was an experiment by a history teacher designed to teach students about the appeal of fascism. The teacher progressively implemented more totalitarian, disciplinary, and strength-oriented measures in the classroom. By the fourth day of the experiment, the students were ready to join a nationwide totalitarian movement and showed incredible loyalty to the fake regime created by the teacher.
How to Deal with Peer Pressure
Coping with peer pressure can be tough. It can be difficult to find the right way to say no to friends and classmates, especially if you are worried about possible consequences such as bullying, social isolation, or rejection.
Consider trying some of the following when faced with peer pressure:
- Practice responses beforehand. If you’ll be with people who are drinking or using drugs and you already know you don’t want to, think of some ways you might refuse. Bringing your own beverage is one possible solution.
- Bring a friend. If you know you’ll be in a situation where you could face negative peer pressure, take a friend or sibling. It can help to have someone you trust who can offer support.
- Plan a safety phrase with a friend or parent. Work out a code you can use if you need a ride home or if you feel trapped in an unsafe situation.
- Listen to your instincts. Know you can always leave if you don’t feel comfortable. Call a friend or parent if you don’t feel safe. If you consistently find yourself in difficult situations, one solution may be to spend less time with people who pressure you to do things you don’t want to do.
If peer pressure has negatively impacted your life, a therapist can offer compassionate and confidential help.
- American Psychological Association. APA concise dictionary of psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2009. Print.
- Asch Experiment. (n.d.). Steps of the Scientific Method, Research and Experiments. Retrieved from http://www.experiment-resources.com/asch-experiment.html
- Choukas-Bradley, S., Giletta, M., Cohen, G. L., & Prinstein, M. J. (2015). Peer influence, peer status, and prosocial behavior: An experimental investigation of peer socialization of adolescents’ intentions to volunteer. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 44(12). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5985442
- Encourage positive peer pressure. (n.d.). ReachOut Australia. Retrieved from https://parents.au.reachout.com/common-concerns/everyday-issues/things-to-try-peer-pressure/encourage-positive-peer-pressure
- Harakeh, Z., & Vollebergh, W. A. M. (2012, March 1). The impact of active and passive peer influence on young adult smoking: An experimental study. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 121(3). Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0376871611003863
- Harwood, R., Miller, S. A., & Vasta, R. (2008). Child psychology: Development in a changing society. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
- Jones, R. (n.d.). The third wave, 1967: An account – Ron Jones. Libcom.org. Retrieved from http://libcom.org/history/the-third-wave-1967-account-ron-jones
- Killen, M., Rutland, A., Abrams, D., Mulvey, K. L., & Hitti, A. (2012, November 19). Development of intra‐ and intergroup judgments in the context of moral and social‐conventional norms. Child Development, 84(3). Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/cdev.12011
- Lyness, D. (2015) Peer pressure. Retrieved from https://kidshealth.org/en/teens/peer-pressure.html
- Rakestraw, M. (2017, March 23). The power of positive peer pressure. Retrieved from https://humaneeducation.org/blog/2017/the-power-of-positive-peer-pressure
Last Updated: 03-11-2019
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Monique SanchezFebruary 19th, 2013 at 8:23 AM
Good evening. Can I have a permission for this peer influence article in order t support my research. I hope that you will reply soon. Thank you.
Monique SanchezFebruary 19th, 2013 at 8:27 AM
Good day! I am a college student taking up BS Psychology who was asking for permission of this article in order to support my study on peer influence. Hope to see your reply soon. Thank You.
AmberApril 7th, 2018 at 10:21 PM
Monique, I am interested in finding out more about positive peer pressure and wanted to know if in your studies you have found anything interesting about this subject? I read somewhere that in dealing with sociopathic behavior that social pressure had more influence on positive behavior then most therapies. Would like to find out more as this implicated communities and people to get involved when there are bad behaviors going on around them. Their opinion has influence!!!
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