Impacts Of Social Pressure

Medically reviewed by Nikki Ciletti, M.Ed, LPC
Updated May 15, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide, substance use, or abuse which could be triggering to the reader.
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For better or worse, our choices as human beings tend to be impacted by messages from society, culture, family, and friends. These messages, sometimes known as social pressure, or “peer pressure,” can push us to behave in certain ways or make specific decisions. 

Although social pressure can be an important factor in our lives, it’s not the only thing that influences our decisions. We still have the ability to make up our own minds about things, and we can still decide for ourselves whether to conform to what others are demanding or choose our own paths. If you find it challenging to resist social pressure and make independent decisions, you may benefit from online therapy.

Defining social pressure

Social pressure is the influence that people feel from others in their social circle or society at large to act, think, or behave in a certain way. It can encourage positive actions, like being kind or working hard, but it can also push individuals towards negative behaviors, such as conforming to harmful norms or engaging in risky activities just to fit in. Essentially, it's the push and pull we all experience from the people and culture around us, shaping our actions and decisions, sometimes even without us realizing it.

iStock/Inside Creative House
Social pressure can impact how you live your life

The desire to fit in

Social pressure encourages people to try to fit in with those around them. Sometimes fitting in may come naturally, but in other cases, a person may feel the need to change their views, choices, and outlooks to avoid being the odd one out. This innate inclination towards social conformity isn't just about immediate social comfort; it's deeply rooted in our evolutionary past

As a species, human beings depend on one another—while other organisms may thrive in solitude, we survive best when living in a community. Consequently, we have evolved to seek conformity as a means to ensure social harmony and mutual survival. Adapting to shared norms and values helps us integrate into our social groups, making us more likely to receive support and cooperation from others. 

In essence, our survival and success as a species have been significantly influenced by our ability to conform to the collective expectations of our communities. Part of this evolutionary process may have resulted in our brains being hard-wired to respond to social pressure—one study, for instance, found that social pressure and the responses it elicits seem to have measurable effects on the brain

Humans also tend to look at the groups we’re in for guidance about what to do and how to behave. In psychology, this is known as the “principle of social proof.” Social proof, which can also encompass things like popularity, can be thought of as subtle social pressure. When we make decisions based on social proof, we may assume that an activity or item must be good because a lot of people do the activity or like the item.

The pros and cons of conformity

When we adjust our views or behaviors to fit in with other people, we may be altering ourselves to conform to a certain standard. These standards could be explicitly stated, as in the case of a written or oral set of instructions or requests, or they could be implicit, normative expectations for how a particular group behaves or functions. 

In some situations, conformity may be good or even necessary. For example, conformity can be beneficial for:

  • Social order: Conformity helps in the proper functioning of society. For example, we practice conformity when we drive a car, for example, because following the rules of the road generally makes it more likely that we will get to our destination safely.
  • Workplace harmony: In a professional setting, conformity can help ensure that work is done safely and efficiently, and it helps maintain a comfortable environment for workers, customers, and visitors. Shared goals and values can also be helpful in forging a strong team dynamic.
  • Cultural or religious integration: People who belong to a religion or culture may find comfort and community in conforming to beliefs, modes of dress, and dietary practices, as well as certain holidays or traditions.
  • Positive social influence: Positive responses to the pressure to conform can include things like seeking out friendships with good people and working to maintain those friendships, changing unhealthy habits, finding a good career, and even respecting and communing with the people around us.
  • Expanding horizons: Being part of a group can encourage individuals to try new activities and experiences that they might not have considered on their own. 

However, social pressure can also lead us to behave in ways that aren’t good for ourselves or those around us. A desire to conform could be problematic if it involves:

  • Negative peer pressure: The desire to fit in can lead people to engage in harmful behaviors, such as substance abuse or unwanted sexual activities.
  • Fear of punishment or ostracism: Conforming out of fear can lead to harmful practices or norms, even when individuals know they are wrong.
  • Undue obedience to authority: Blind conformity to authority can result in harmful situations, as questioning and dissent are suppressed.
  • Suppression of individuality: Conformity can stifle personal expression and the uniqueness of individuals, leading to a lack of diversity in thoughts and actions.

Groupthink: A high pressure to conform within groups can result in poor decision-making, as dissenting opinions and critical information are withheld for fear of backlash.

Getty/AnnaStills

Making independent choices

Depending on our living environment, how we were raised, whether we adhere to a religious tradition, and other factors, social pressure can be hard to resist. However, being able to make independent choices instead of succumbing to this kind of pressure from others can be an important life skill, although it is sometimes easier said than done.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that we need to rebel against all social pressure, since not all social pressure is automatically bad. However, while no one can be entirely immune to social pressure, maintaining the ability to make independent choices is a little extra something that can help us avoid falling into harmful behaviors and situations just to get along.

It may also be important to remember that while conforming may be the right thing to do in some situations, expressing your own individuality may be even more important than going along with the crowd. Knowing how to express your individuality can be a valuable skill to have. Respecting your own uniqueness can be an important tool in boosting your self-esteem and developing your personal identity. It can help you make better choices that align with your own values.

It can be worthwhile to find a healthy balance between social pressure and independent choices. We often find value in community, a sense of belonging, and support from our family and peers. However, being able to stand on our own two feet and make our own choices sometimes may be the better thing to do.

How to handle society's social pressures

Getty/Luis Alvarez
Social pressure can impact how you live your life

Having a hard time with social pressure is a challenge many people face. While social pressure may impact our choices in various ways, it can become a problem in our lives if we too frequently feel compelled to go along with the group instead of making our own decisions, especially if we sense that what the group is doing might be harmful to ourselves or to other people.

Being too intent on pleasing others, especially if we tend to do it to our own detriment, also can be one of the traits of trauma response. Psychologist Pete Walker calls the tendency to people-please the “fawn” response, and notes that it often arises as a childhood survival strategy meant to appease a neglectful or abusive parent. Adults who have a fawn response can have difficulty setting boundaries with other people, and as a result may find themselves in codependent or other types of harmful relationships that they may have difficulty leaving.

Resources for support and guidance

If you find yourself regularly having difficulty with social pressure or other issues, speaking with a therapist could be of value to you. Learning more about your situation, gaining new perspectives, and coming up with possible solutions to manage social pressures are some of the potential benefits linked to working with a mental health professional.

Some people prefer to have in-person sessions with a therapist in their area, but online resources are also available. Online therapy can pair you with a licensed therapist who has training and expertise in the issues that you might want to discuss and work on.

One benefit of online therapy is that you can have your sessions in the comfort of your own home, or wherever you have an Internet connection. In many places, online therapy might be less expensive than traditional in-person sessions. Studies have also shown that online therapy can be just as effective as in-person sessions and that online therapy using specific techniques such as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) for trauma-related issues may yield positive results.

Takeaway

Human beings can be social creatures, and we tend to live social lives in community with others. Social pressure regarding how to behave, what to do, what to wear, and dozens of other facets of our lives is all around us and can influence the choices we make and how we make those choices. It can also affect how we construct our own identities and whether we honor our own uniqueness. In some cases, the desire to conform and please others can affect our emotional health and our ability to have healthy relationships with others or even ourselves. Having a healthy, mature approach to handling social pressure can be an important life skill that affects the overall health of a person. If you’re having trouble handling the social pressure in your life, you might seek help through traditional or online therapy.
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