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 Pressures
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 because they might motivate us to behave well toward others. Conversely, they can be negative, in that they might motivate us to do things that are harmful to ourselves or others.
Most teens can speak about the challenge of social pressures and the effects of other combined pressures they face. Adolescents are often pulled in many ways, surrounded by adults who expect good grades and behavior. Their actions, influenced by peers, might not only impact their well-being but also damage the emotional health of a loved one through behaviors that can be destructive. Caught between their own ideas or desires, and the opinions of others can lead to feelings of stress and inadequacy.
However, social pressure can take many forms and is for any age. When someone, such as a friend or peer, tries to persuade us to do something, they might be exercising a form of social pressure. Social pressure can also be 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 typically 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. Sometimes, social pressure can encourage positive changes, but sometimes it can encourage negative and harmful behaviors.
Humans often have a desire for achievements, which may have an evolutionary basis. For example, they may have a desire to get good grades or to push boundaries. As a species, human beings can also be largely dependent on one another and usually survive best when living in a community with others. In addition, being in groups helps to push us to adapt and strive for more. 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 to stay connected to the community can be a survival strategy to help us achieve adulthood successfully and potentially provide benefits such as friendship, potential mates, help raising children, and resources that we need to live.
Part of this 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 can therefore be possible that social pressure might potentially alter a person’s perception of reality in some way, since it 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, 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 might be explicitly stated, as in the case of a written or oral set of instructions or requests, or they might be implicit, normative expectations for how a particular group behaves or functions.
Conformity isn’t necessarily a good or bad thing. In some ways, conformity may be necessary for the proper functioning of society. 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. 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 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 they may need to conform to the ways certain holidays or life events are celebrated.
Positive responses to the pressure to conform can include things like seeking out friendships with good people and working to maintain those friendships, or they might include things like changing unhealthy habits. Positive social pressure can lead us to find a good career, pay our bills on time, and respect the people we live and work with so that we can fit in with our peers and be a welcomed part of our community. Wanting to stay within a friend group that we find fulfilling can also help us expand our horizons, such as 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 for ourselves or the people around us. The desire to fit in can lead people to do things like take drugs or drink too much 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, to fit in with the people asking them to do those things.
Conforming out of fear of punishment or through the assumption that authority must always be obeyed without question can create situations that are harmful, as can conforming out of the 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 judgment 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 can refer to 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 fear of removal from 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
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
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.
If you or someone you know is in an abusive situation, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for help, information, and resources.
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.
Frequently Asked Questions
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