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Peer Pressure Principle


Principles > Peer Pressure Principle

Principle | How it works | So what?


Most people are strongly influenced by what others are saying and doing, especially those who they respect and like.

How it works

We are social animals who long ago discovered that living together was more likely to lead to our survival than trying to make it alone. This also meant that we have to get on with others, which in turn means conforming to social rules.

So why do we not just do whatever we like anyway? Because the ultimate social punishment is being ostracized, where we are ejected from the group and hence have to survive by ourselves. This is also an effective attack on our sense of identity, much of which we form through

This is a terrifying thought for many people and we hence pay much attention to what others are doing and what they are saying to and about us.

For most of us, peer pressure is a significant and constant force.


One of the most worrying communications from others is where they criticize us, telling us that what we say or do is wrong or, worse, bad.

The immediate reaction to being criticized is typically fear, followed quickly by defending or excusing our actions. Only when we feel we may be ejected will turn to apology.

Directed action

When others tell us what we should do, they are effectively directing our action, exercising social authority. This can be uncomfortable for us as we lose our sense of control, but we may still conform as the alternative is to risk social disapproval and consequent effects.

Direct pressure

When others want us to act, they may not tell us specifically what to do, but they may indicate that we need to do something. This gives us more control but also gives us the risk of doing the wrong thing again.

Direct pressure can be subtle, perhaps implemented just with body language, for example when a person glares at us or makes hand signals.

Indirect pressure

Pressure can be done through other people, for example where a person applies pressure on a friend through another friend, effectively getting the third party to 'do the dirty work'. This can be particularly effective where the third person is respected by the target person. It also saves face in preventing the conflict that direct pressure or action can create.

Imagined pressure

Perhaps the most common pressure is not where others are telling us what to do or even subtly nudging us, but when we think they want us to act in a certain way. In Theory of Mind, we imagine what others are thinking, and often get it completely wrong. In particular, we think they are thinking critically about us. In practice, they are often more likely to be thinking about themselves (or perhaps thinking that we are judging them).

Group effects

In groupthink, pressure is applied within the team to ensure group harmony, even at the expense of wrong decisions. This is applied by people called 'mind guards' who will 'have a quiet word' with people who disagree.


People who stand up and tell the truth when peer pressure is trying to keep them quiet require significant bravery as they will easily end up being reviled and rejected.

So what?

Asking something like 'What will others think?' can be an effective way to get them to conform to social rules. Nudging others into theory of mind can jolt them away from more self-oriented thoughts.

Groups can also be managed to first imagine that others agree with you and then, as they follow suit, you can find that you have full support, even when individually they are not that sure.

Children use this principle when they tell their parents 'Everyone else has got one'. The parents then put themselves in the minds of the children and feel the pain of social rejection and the peer pressure to conform. And of course buy the child what they want.

See also

Authority principle, Conformance Principle

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