Young People Ask . . .
Peer Pressure—Is It Really All That Powerful?
“I don’t think I feel peer pressure.”—Pamela, a high school student.
“I don’t think peer pressure has that strong an effect on me anymore. Most of my pressure comes from myself.”—Robbie, a young adult.
HAVE you ever found yourself feeling this way? Granted, you may know that the Bible says: “Bad associations spoil useful habits.” (1 Corinthians 15:33) Still, you may wonder, ‘Is peer pressure overrated—maybe not quite as strong as my parents and other older ones say it is?’
If you struggle with such doubts from time to time, you are not the first young person to do so. But we invite you to consider a possibility. Might there be more to peer pressure than you think? Many youths have found themselves surprised at the strength of peer pressure. For example, Angie admits that she might be doing more to fit in with society than she would like to think. She remarks: “Sometimes social pressure is so powerful that you don’t even know it is peer pressure. You start believing that it’s your own internal pressure.”
Similarly, Robbie, quoted above, says that his greatest pressure comes from within. Yet, he admits that it is hard to live near a big city. Why? Because of the peer pressure that comes from a materialistic environment. He says: “Wealth is such a big thing here.” Clearly, peer pressure is a force to be reckoned with. Why, then, do so many young people think that peer pressure does not affect them?
Peer pressure can be deceptive—in fact, we may not notice it at all. To illustrate: If we are at sea level, the huge expanse of air above us exerts a constant pressure on us of about 15 pounds per square inch [1 kg/sq cm].* You may live under that pressure every day, but you scarcely notice it. Why? You are used to it.
Granted, atmospheric pressure is not necessarily harmful. But when people exert subtle pressure on us, they may gradually cause us to change. The apostle Paul understood the power of peer pressure. He warned Christians in Rome: “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold.” (Romans 12:2, The New Testament in Modern English) How, though, might this happen?
How Peer Pressure Works
Do you enjoy having the approval and acceptance of others? Most of us would admit that we do. Yet, our natural desire for such approval can be a two-edged sword. How far would we go to gain the acceptance we crave? Even if we are confident regarding ourselves in that respect, what about those around us? Are they even trying to resist peer pressure, or are they letting it mold them?
For example, many today view the Bible’s standards of morality as out-of-date or unrealistic in our modern world. Many feel that it is not so important to worship God in the way that he asks us to in his Word. (John 4:24) Why do they feel that way? The answer, in part, may be peer pressure. At Ephesians 2:2, Paul speaks of the system of things of the world as having a “spirit,” or dominant attitude. That spirit exerts pressure on people to conform to the thinking of a world that does not know Jehovah. How might we be affected?
Our everyday activities of school, study, family obligations, and work usually involve the need to intermingle with people who do not share all of our Christian values. For instance, at school there may be many who pursue popularity at almost any cost, engage in immoral sexual relations, or even abuse drugs and alcohol. What will happen if we choose close friends among those who engage in such conduct or accept it as normal, even praiseworthy? We are likely to begin—perhaps slowly at first—to adopt similar attitudes. The world’s “spirit,” or “air,” will put pressure on us, effectively squeezing us into the world’s mold.
Interestingly, modern social scientists have done experiments that support these Bible principles. Consider the noteworthy Asch experiment. An individual is invited to join a group of people sitting together. Dr. Asch shows a large card with a vertical line, then another card is shown with three vertical lines of distinctly different sizes. Next he asks the individuals in the group to give their opinion as to which of the three lines appears to match the first. The answer is easy. The first few times, all agree. But on the third trial, something changes.
Just as before, it is easy to tell which lines match up in size. But unbeknownst to the individual being tested, the other members of the group are paid to act as part of the experiment. They all agree on the same wrong answer. What happens? Only 25 percent of the individuals tested resolutely stick to what they know to be true. All the others agree with the group at least once—even though this means denying what their eyes tell them!
Clearly, people want to fit in with those around them—so much so that most will even deny what they know to be true. Many young people have observed this pressure in action. Daniel, a 16-year-old, acknowledges: “Peer pressure can make you change. And when more people are around, the pressure builds up. You may even start thinking that what they are doing is right.”
Angie, quoted earlier, relates a typical example of such pressure at school: “When you were in junior high school, it was very important what clothing you wore. You had to have the brand names. You didn’t really want to spend $50 for a shirt—why would anybody want to do that?” As Angie suggests, it can be hard to detect the pressure while it is affecting you. But can peer pressure affect us in matters that are more serious?
Why Peer Pressure Can Be Dangerous
Imagine that you are swimming in the ocean. While you are busy swimming and riding the waves, other powerful forces may be silently at work. The waves push you toward shore, but there may be an undercurrent as well. Slowly it is moving you sideways. When you finally scan the shore, you can no longer see your family or friends. You never noticed how far sideways the current had pushed you! Likewise, as we go through our daily activities, our thoughts and feelings are under constant influence. Before we realize it, these influences can push us far from the standards to which we always thought we would hold fast.
For example, the apostle Peter was a bold man. He fearlessly wielded a sword in the face of a hostile crowd on the night of Jesus’ arrest. (Mark 14:43-47; John 18:10) Yet, years later peer pressure led him to show blatant partiality. He avoided Gentile Christians—even though he had earlier received a vision from Christ directing him not to view Gentiles as unclean. (Acts 10:10-15, 28, 29) Peter may have found it more difficult to face the disdain of other men than to face the point of a sword! (Galatians 2:11, 12) Indeed, peer pressure can be dangerous.
Vital to Acknowledge the Power of Peer Pressure
Peter’s example can teach us a vital lesson. Being strong in some ways doesn’t mean being strong in all ways. Peter had weak spots, as all of us do. No matter who we are, we need to become conscious of our vulnerable areas. We might ask ourselves honestly: ‘Where am I vulnerable? Do I yearn for an affluent life-style? Does personal vanity have a foothold in my heart? How far would I go to gain praise, status, and popularity?’
Now, perhaps we would never deliberately put ourselves in harm’s way by choosing to associate with immoral drug users or those who are sexually promiscuous. What, though, about our more subtle weaknesses? If we choose to associate closely with those who will influence us in the area where we have a weakness, then we are setting ourselves up to be manipulated by peer pressure—perhaps to our lasting harm.
The good news, though, is that not all peer pressure is bad. Can we manage peer pressure—even make it work for us? And how can we fight against negative peer pressure? Those questions will be addressed in a future “Young People Ask . . .” article.
A simple experiment illustrates the reality of air pressure. If you take an empty plastic bottle to the top of a mountain, let it fill with air, and seal it shut, what will happen to the bottle as you descend the mountain? It will collapse. The pressure of the air outside is much greater than that of the thinner air inside the bottle.
[Picture on page 12, 13]
A materialistic environment can create intense peer pressure