Many people think peer pressure is something we left behind in our grade school days. But it is just as present in adulthood as in childhood; it’s just harder to spot sometimes. Peer pressure can be defined as ‘any attempt by one or more peers to compel an individual to follow in the decisions or behaviors favored by the pressuring individual or group.’1 Peer pressure can be all in the name of good fun. Still, it moves from friendly ribbing into dangerous territory when it fuels an addiction, jeopardizes someone’s recovery, or threatens to damage someone’s physical or mental wellbeing.
Why Do We Give In?
Giving in to peer pressure can be a way to avoid being ostracized, abandoned, or targeted as an outsider — all things that our most basic instincts tell us are bad for our survival. Essentially, giving in to peer pressure stems from the very natural desire to belong. Famous psychologist Abraham Maslow’s pyramid of needs claims belonging is the third most essential need for humankind, only behind basic physiological needs and physical safety.
Recognizing Peer Pressure
Peer pressure can be overt or subtle, friendly or forced. It can present as something as simple as encouraging a colleague to eat a donut in the office break room or as perilous as guilting someone into driving under the influence with friends in the car. A common form of peer pressure is an individual saying or doing something that “gives permission” to take an action that they may want to do but know is not in their best interest. If someone has given in to peer pressure, that person will often feel regretful for caving to what others said or did.
Individuals are not the only source. Peer pressure can also manifest as a society’s expectation to live a certain way, live beyond one’s means, or “keep up with the Joneses.” It could be keeping pace with a group of friends drinking alcohol at dinner or feeling the need to hurry up and get married because everyone else seems to have done so.
Positive peer pressure
Peer pressure is not always a bad thing. It can be beneficial under the right circumstances. An individual may feel pressure from friends or family to save money and prepare for the future. One could feel pressure to open up with friends and loved ones, be vulnerable, and build meaningful relationships. Peer pressure can also be healthy and positive when it takes the form of something like encouragement to stop smoking, drinking, or indulging in other harmful substances.
Negative peer pressure
Bad peer pressure can look friendly or unfriendly. Friendly peer pressure is often hard to detect since it feels less coerced. Sometimes, people subjected to friendly peer pressure can perceive it as a joke or encouragement. Unfriendly or forced peer pressure is usually easier to pick up on as it is much more overt and typically more unpleasant. It can sometimes be categorized as bullying. Peer pressure becomes bad when what we’re giving in to is not beneficial or may be harmful to our mental or physical wellbeing — like pressuring someone to accept a drink or drug when they are in recovery, to do something sexually that does not align with one’s desires or morals. Even a toxic workplace – coercing an individual to work longer hours to their detriment.
Essentially, bad peer pressure tries to make you give in when someone does not take no for an answer or respect an individual’s boundaries. Sometimes a person will give in to make life easier and avoid conflict. This kind of pressure can show up both physically and mentally. Physically it can show up in the form of discomfort or tension, tightness in the chest, or tiredness. Mentally it can appear as feeling disconnected from oneself, feeling like a battle is being fought inside the brain, feeling attacked or bullied, being uncomfortably unsure of oneself, feeling “icky,” mad at oneself, or like one’s life is out of control.
How can you spot peer pressure in the moment?
Evaluate your decisions to determine if you are making them for yourself or to appease others. Is it the path of least resistance with others, or does it make you feel like “one of the team?” Are you using the excuse that you do not want to be rude, cause trouble, or be different? Being told things like “just this once” or to “man up” are all phrases that should make you pay attention. These are all indicators that you may be succumbing to some peer pressure.
If you have been caving to peer pressure for a while, you can become so far removed from your path that you no longer know what you need or want in life. This can lead to feeling guilty, angry with yourself, helpless in your own life, and of course, substance abuse.
How Not to Give In
This may come easily for some and be very difficult for others, but the key is retraining your brain. Relearning the idea that your needs, wants, and boundaries are valid and deserve to be respected. Essentially, creating a foundation for standing up to peer pressure. Give yourself time to think before you make decisions. Reflect on what you want and why you want it. Become familiar with your definitions of success and happiness rather than someone else’s. Determine the things that matter to you — your values, interests, morals, boundaries — and stick with them. That way, you will know if a choice you are making aligns with what you want or if it is someone else’s idea planting itself in your mind.
Shake things up — the way you’re doing things now isn’t working, so it is time to try something new. Ask for help from someone who encourages you to do what you want and need, not pushes you into what they want. You may need to make some uncomfortable decisions about whom you surround yourself with. If your current friends don’t respect your wishes, you may need to make a shift. Being around people who have the same interests and values helps ensure that you won’t be pressured to violate them. This does not mean that your former people are inherently bad; they are just making choices that don’t align with your best interests.
Remove yourself from situations where you anticipate being pressured or avoid them entirely. Prioritizing your needs is more important than making an appearance that could jeopardize your physical or mental health. It may be tempting to make excuses to get out of it, but almost invariably, the best option is to be direct and straightforward. Say no, be assertive, and leave no room for interpretation in your answer. For example, the excuse that you cannot drink because you have an early morning is much easier than outright saying, “no, I do not drink, but thank you for offering.” You do not need an “acceptable” reason to justify your choices for others.
Studies have shown that being able to resist peer pressure and stand firm in one’s beliefs can be beneficial to an individual’s mental health, creating “a strong sense of autonomy and pride at being able to refute peer pressure” and making choices that “reflect one’s personality, values, and priorities.” Remember that someone else’s criticism of you is not a reflection of your shortcomings but theirs. That criticism often stems from their insecurities or desire to fit in and should have no bearing on your choices. You matter enough that your voice should be listened to as much as anyone else’s.
- 1 Sim TN, Koh SF. A domain conceptualization of adolescent susceptibility to peer pressure. Journal of Research on Adolescence. 2003;13:57–80.
- 3 https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1532-7795.1301002
- 4 https://link.springer.com/article/10.1186/s12889-020-09060-2