Peer pressure is a common term in all societies but is the process purported to be represented by this term real or imagined? Human beings try to mirror the actions of their friends to gain acceptance. For instance, adolescents tend to be influenced by the lifestyle of their peers. Irrespective of this though, the process of choosing to conform entails some form of decision making. So why do people think they are influenced by their friends or enemies? Is peer pressure real or just a way for people to exonerate themselves from blame for their behavior? A popular saying states “show me your friends and I will show you who you are.” But does this imply that individuals blindly accept to follow others even when aware that the others are wrong and that they have the option of employing their own thinking?
The phenomenon “peer pressure” has two faces, positive and negative peer pressure. The term peer pressure is a misnomer in its entirety. More appropriate terms for the so called “negative peer pressure” which entails the bullying of persons to accept or conform to certain notions, positions, stereotypes, or ways of life are discrimination, persecution, and stigmatization. It is widely accepted that human beings crave for social recognition. People who perceive themselves to belong to the minority and thus likely to be stigmatized are usually attuned to the way they are perceived and evaluated by others. In their interactions with others, they wish to be treated as if there are no prejudices against them. They try to convince themselves that they are not targets of the discrimination that often befalls others belonging to the perceived minority. They do this by deluding themselves through biased comparisons that make them think that they are doing better than other members of the stigmatized group (Carvallo & Pelham, 2006). In short, conforming to discrimination entails cognitive distortions of reality that make stigmatized individuals feel that the persons who inhabit their social world treat them well. These distortions are aimed at maintaining a sense of social connectedness. “Negative peer pressure” is thus persecution that forces one to unwillingly join the bandwagon, lose one’s originality, thought, and conduct (Tarshis, 2010, p. 9).
“Negative peer pressure” represents attempts by ostracized individuals to gain acceptance from friends, work colleagues, or other groups. Evidence emanating from research in social psychology suggests that despite the fact that stigmatized members of a group often experience adverse personal, economic, and interpersonal outcomes, they tend to minimize the degree to which they experience discrimination at a personal level (Carvallo & Pelham, 2006). This is because they have a strong need for social acceptance and great aversion to social rejection (Leary, 2001). This strong need to belong increases upon rejection and decreases after social acceptance or inclusion is gained (Carvallo & Pelham, 2006). Conformity to the so-called peer pressure phenomenon can thus be construed as attempts by individuals to gain or maximize their chances of acquiring social acceptance. These attempts may entail restructuring of beliefs about oneself and others in ways that make stigmatized individuals feel that many people like them.
The term “negative peer pressure,” therefore, represents a society’s attempts to give discrimination and persecution more socially acceptable phrases and in effect, to conceal the truth about instances of wrongful discrimination that are prevalent in most societies. It’s ambiguous because it can be used in reference to seemingly benign pressure to attend or participate in school functions or to coercion to engage in harmful actions such as underage drinking, smoking, and criminal acts. This term needs to be corrected because the trend of using euphemisms to justify atrocities sets a dangerous precedent for future generations. When “peer pressure” is perceived to be normal, people lower their defenses against bad influence and become vulnerable to persecution. Labeling of this harassment by its appropriate and correct names will make it easier for people to stand against such attacks. Rightful naming of harassment will resolve the enigma associated with the issue rendering it solvable. The stigmatized will understand, be proud of, stand for, and fight for their beliefs. They will not be easily influenced into laying down their convictions in favor of those of others.
The other side of peer pressure, “positive peer pressure” impacts on the lives of individuals in desirable ways. It helps children to acquire good values, attitude, habits, and behaviors (Tarshis, 2010, p. 6). Observation of what others do help individuals to reevaluate themselves in positive ways at times. Peers and the choices they make can give one a glimpse of what he or she can accomplish. What one’s friends think about life, how they perceive situations, and how they react to different circumstances are other examples that individuals can emulate. For instance, one can learn good ways of acting or interacting in a group environment. Being part of a larger group of peers can expose one to a variety of positive human behaviors. This enables a person to reflect on their own behavior and beliefs. “Peer pressure” when viewed from this context helps one to make right choices in life and models one’s personality in a positive way. This form of “peer pressure” is certainly what is termed “inspiration”. Peers can inspire one to become more optimistic or confident. In life, people look for their own identity and inspiration on how to live their lives. This is accomplished at times through insights gained from friends.
Irrespective of all arguments advanced though, it is individuals who make personal decisions of who to interact with at the end of the day. Their decisions are informed by factors such as the need for fame, acceptance, or power. Therefore and in spite of the difficulties encountered, the choice of who to follow, emulate, or interact with is a personal decision. Following friends blindly and adopting their tastes in fashion, clothing, hairstyles, music and living is thus a matter of personal choice. It can lead to loss of individuality, identity, and worse, get one into trouble. The compulsion attributed to “negative peer pressure” for one to do things he or she knows are wrong or to engage in activities one is strongly opposed to is also subject to personal decision.
In conclusion, there is no such thing as peer pressure. Negative peer pressure is a society’s attempt to give persecution and discrimination a positive and socially acceptable outlook. Every individual experiences negative and positive influences from friends, workmates, and the society at large. The choice to conform to certain stereotypes is a personal decision though. Succumbing to “peer pressure” is taking the power and right of making important decisions about one’s life and giving it someone else. Appropriate labeling of stigmatization and harassment will empower people to stand for what they believe in without fear. “Positive peer pressure” is more of inspiration from others.
Carvallo, M. & Pelham, B. W. (2006). When fiends become friends: The need to belong and perceptions of personal and group discrimination. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90(1), 94-108.
Leary, M. R. (2001). Toward a conceptualization of interpersonal rejection. In M. R. Leary (Ed.),
Interpersonal rejection (pp. 3–20). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Tarshis, T. T. (2010). Living with peer pressure and bullying. New York, NY: Infobase Publishing.