Martha asks: What is peer pressure?
Hi Martha –
Peer Pressure is a very simple thing, but with very complex consequences. Basically, people do things for one of three reasons.
First, because they want to: a baby cries, crawls, burps, because it feels like it; similarly, if you see a yummy cookie that you forgot was in your house, you might eat it, just because you feel like it.
Second, people do things because they’re directly told to. A student does their homework because they’re supposed to. A driver stops at a red light because that’s the law. Maybe you refrain from eating that cookie, because your mom told you not to eat before dinner. Now in all those cases, the person isn’t doing what they want to exactly – the student would rather play video games, the driver would rather drive through, and you would rather eat the cookie – but you choose to follow the orders and rules.
But third, people act often because of an indirect sense of what others want. You might show up at a party in a bright-colored fancy outfit, and see that everyone else is in jeans and t-shirts, and run home to change, so you look like them. You drive under the speed limit because everyone else on the freeway is. You walk into your home and see a plate of freshly-baked cookies and think “I probably shouldn’t eat those,” and walk past them.
This is the part of your brain where Peer Pressure works. Peer Pressure is when you behave certain ways, not because you want to or because some authority says you have to, but because people you see as your equals say to – or because you think they would.
When humans are young children, they mainly care about pleasing their parents or other authorities (such as teachers). But as they mature, they care more and more about their peers’ opinions. A nine-year-old might obey his parents’ rules on how to dress, but be deeply embarrassed by wearing different clothes from his classmates. A thirteen-year-old might try smoking a cigarette because the other kids think it’s cool, even though she finds the smell disgusting. A seventeen-year-old might openly disobey their parents’ rules, saying “You just don’t get it! You don’t understand me at all!” Actually, the parent probably understands their child pretty well; it’s their kids’ friends they don’t understand at all!
And of course peer pressure isn’t just about one’s friends. Teens feel peer pressure to listen to the sort of music their generation finds cool, young adults pay attention to fashion so they’ll fit in at social events, and middle-aged workers watch sports events and TV shows they don’t particularly like just so they can talk about them at work!
There isn’t really anything inherently wrong with Peer Pressure. The problem comes when it’s so strong that it makes someone do something they really shouldn’t. Teenagers are especially vulnerable in this, and might get into terrible trouble with drugs, sex, or even crime (gangs are all about Peer Pressure), from it.
So your job, Martha, is to try to keep your head in the face of all the Peer Pressure you face. As well as all the other pressures!
And if you can do that, you might well find that you’re so smart and strong that your peers will feel pressured to be like you!