How Does Social Pressure Impact Our Choices?

Updated October 24, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

For better or for worse, our choices as human beings tend to be impacted by messages from our society, our culture, our families, and our friends that can pressure us to behave in certain ways or make certain decisions. These messages are sometimes known as “social pressure.”

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 from us or whether to choose our own path. Let’s explore how social pressure works and the effects it can have on our choices and relationships.

What Is Social Pressure?

The American Psychological Association defines social pressure as “the exertion of influence on a person or group by another person or group.” These pressures can be positive, in that they might motivate us to behave well towards others, or they can be negative, in that they might motivate us to do things that are harmful to ourselves or to other people.

Social pressure can take many forms. When someone tries to persuade us to do something, they might be exercising a form of social pressure. Social pressure is also part of the implicit demands that our culture or society makes on us and the expectation that we will conform in certain ways. In some cases, social pressure can take the form of threats or personal attacks. There may also be an expectation of either punishment or reward as part of some types of social pressure.

The Desire To Fit In

Social Pressure Can Impact How You Live Your Life

By its very nature, social pressure encourages people to try to fit in with those around them. Sometimes fitting in comes naturally, but in other cases a person may feel the need to change their views, choices, and outlooks to help them avoid being the odd one out. Sometimes social pressure encourages positive changes, but sometimes it can encourage negative and harmful behaviors.

It is possible that the human desire to fit in with a given group has an evolutionary basis. As a species, human beings are largely dependent on one another and usually survive best when living in community with others. In the process of growing up, children learn a great deal of cultural and social information, which usually includes learning to follow the norms of their society. Managing one’s attitudes and behaviors in order to stay connected to the community is therefore partially a survival strategy, first to help us achieve adulthood successfully, and then once we are grown up, providing benefits such as friendship, access to potential mates, help with raising any children we might have, and access to resources that we need to live.

Part of that evolutionary process may have resulted in our brains being hard-wired to respond to social pressure. One study that used brain scans found that social pressure and the responses it elicits seem to have measurable effects on the brain. It is therefore possible that social pressure might have the potential to alter a person’s perception of reality in some way, since it apparently can lead to detectable changes in the brain itself.

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, is a kind of subtle social pressure. When we make decisions based on social proof, we are assuming that an activity or item must be good because a lot of people do the activity or like the thing.

The Pros And Cons Of Conformity

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

Conformity isn’t necessarily either good or bad. In some ways, conformity is necessary for the proper functioning of society. We practice conformity when we drive a car, for example, because following the rules of the road makes it more likely that we will get to our destinations safely. We often are expected to conform to certain standards in the workplace so that work can be done safely and efficiently, and so that workers, customers, and visitors alike can all feel comfortable in that space. People who belong to a religion may be required to practice conformity of beliefs, modes of dress, and dietary practices, and may need to conform with the ways certain holidays or life events are celebrated.

Positive responses to pressure to conform include things like seeking out friendships with good people and working to maintain those friendships, or it might include things like changing unhealthy habits. Positive social pressure can lead us to find a good career, to pay our bills on time, and to respect the people we live and work with so that we can fit in with our peers and be a welcomed member of our community. Wanting to stay within a friend group that we find fulfilling can also help us to expand our horizons, for example when we engage in an activity that is new to us that our friends want us to try with them.

Social pressure can also lead us to behave in ways that aren’t good either for ourselves or for the people around us. The desire to fit in can lead people to do things like take drugs or drink too much in order to be accepted by a peer group that participates in those kinds of activities. It can also lead people to have sex even if they don’t really want to, or to participate in sexual activities that make them uncomfortable, in order to fit in with the people asking them to do those things.

Conforming out of fear of punishment or by operating under the assumption that authority must always be obeyed without question can create situations that are harmful, as can conforming out of fear of being cast out of a particular group. Social pressure that involves the threat of punishment or ostracism can create a situation in which people comply with the group against their better judgement and do harmful things that they might not otherwise do.

Intense pressure to conform can also lead to groups making faulty decisions through groupthink. Groupthink is a situation in which individuals decline to disagree or decline to impart information that the group might find objectionable because they’re afraid of potential backlash against them, including a fear of being pushed out of the group. This lack of honesty can lead to poor decision-making because not all the information needed to make a good choice is available to the group.

Making Independent Choices

Being able to make independent choices instead of bowing to pressure from others can be an important life skill, although it is sometimes easier said than done. 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.

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

It’s also important to remember that while conforming sometimes can be the right thing to do, expressing your own individuality sometimes might be just as or even more important than going along with the crowd, and 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 in developing your own personal identity, and 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 much of value in community, in a sense of belonging, and in support from our family and peers. However, being able to stand on our own two feet and make our own choices sometimes is the better thing to do.

When Social Pressure Feels Too Hard To Resist

Social Pressure Can Impact How You Live Your Life

Struggling with social pressure is a problem that many people face. While social pressure does 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 a form of trauma response. Psychologist Pete Walker calls the tendency to people-please the “fawn” response, and notes that it often first 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.

If you or someone you know is in an abusive situation, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline on 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for help, information, and resources.

Resources For Support And Guidance

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

Some people prefer to have in-person sessions with a therapist in their area, but online resources are also available, for example through services such as BetterHelp. BetterHelp can help pair you with a licensed therapist who has training and expertise in the issues that you might want to discuss and work on with them.

One benefit of online therapy is that you can have your sessions in the comfort and privacy of your own home, or wherever you have an Internet connection. In some cases, 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 techniques such as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) for trauma-related issues specifically can potentially yield positive results.

Takeaway

Human beings are social creatures, and we tend to live social lives in community with others. Social pressure about 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 or not we honor our own uniqueness. In some cases, the desire to conform and to please others can affect our ability to have healthy relationships with other people, or sometimes even with ourselves. Having a healthy, mature approach to handling social pressure can be an important life skill, and if we’re having trouble handling the social pressure we experience in our lives, we can seek help from a licensed therapist such as those at BetterHelp.

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