Peer Pressure Changes Perspective

“Peer pressure…is not only unpleasant, but can actually change your view of a problem.” (from the book, Quiet, by Susan Cain.)

In Facing History seminars, we talk a lot about the pressures to be obedient or conform. It is a more complex and nuanced exploration of these ideas than just chalking things up to peer pressure or “brainwashing” propaganda. We each are thoughtful individuals. We each face situations in which obedience is important, perhaps even vital, for the functioning of a society. And, we each face situations in which the context or the other people involved contributes to us deciding to do something different than we might in a different situation.

Still, I was really struck by some of the research on peer pressure presented by Susan Cain in Quiet. Summarizing research by Solomon Asch from the early 1950s, which was updated by Gregory Berns in 2005, Cain notes,

“These early findings suggest that groups are like mind-altering substances. If the group thinks the answer is A, you’re much more likely to believe that A is correct, too. It’s not that you’re saying consciously, ‘Hmm, I’m not sure, but they all think the answer’s A, so I’ll go with that.’ Nor are you saying ‘I want them to like me, so I’ll just pretend the answer’s A.’ No, you are doing something much more unexpected–and dangerous. Most of Bern’s volunteers reported having gone along with the group because ‘they thought that they had arrived serendipitously at the same correct answer.’ They were utterly blind, in other words to how much their peers had influenced them.”

peer_pressure1Pause for a minute and think about that – “you’re much more likely to BELIEVE that A is correct.” Peer pressure is not just about kids. It happens in work environments, politics, sporting events. What do we do to address the factors that would lead towards conformity in ourselves when we may not even be aware of the influence?

In contrast, Cain’s description of what happens when we go against peer pressure shows that we are VERY aware of doing that. When participants in the research study chose the correct answer despite peers’ pressure, they experienced heightened emotions such as fear of rejection. Berns calls this “the pain of independence.”

Cain considers the significance of this for civic life:

Most of our most important civic institutions, from elections to jury trials to the very idea of majority rule, depends on dissenting voices. But when the group is literally capable of changing our perceptions, and when to stand alone is to activate primitive, powerful, and unconscious feelings of rejection, then the health of these institutions seems far more vulnerable than we think.”

I’ve been thinking of this research and this quote this week as we explore the Holocaust and Human Behavior in our first seminar of the summer.  Today, one of the teachers questioned, “what, then, are the resources to resist authority?”  It’s a great question.  What ARE the resources that help us resist the pressures for conformity or obedience?

For those readers who are teachers, how might this research influence the way we facilitate a conversation in the classroom?

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