By Aruna Sankaranarayanan
Like many things in life, peer pressure is a double-edged sword. From explicitly cajoling you to have one more drink or bunk a class, this furtive force may also influence your fashion sense, food choices, financial management and facets of your personality. As your friends can influence your behaviour in overt and covert ways, don’t be fooled into thinking that only young children or pliant people fall under the spell of peer pressure. While individuals may vary in terms of how impressionable they are, almost everyone is susceptible to the pulls and tugs of peer pressure. Worse, it can exert its sway without us even being aware of its influence.
As peer pressure can both help and hurt us, what can we do to maximize its benefits while avoiding its pitfalls? While growing up, your parents may have warned you to stay away from the “bad crowd.” Though you may have brushed off their qualms as typical parental angst, research does support their view. In her book, How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be, behavioral scientist Katy Milkman cites a study that found that a person’s savings were likely to increase if their peers attended a workshop on saving for their twilight years. That’s right. If your peers start saving, you too are more likely to stock up for a rainy day even if you didn’t participate in the workshop that exhorted you to.
Similarly, studies have found that your peers can impact your grades and career choices. Milkman and her colleagues thus wondered if people can utilize the power of their peers to achieve their goals. In two studies, people were encouraged to touch base with others who either exercised regularly or got good grades and then copy their strategies. Doing so, prompted adults to exercise more regularly and motivated college students to achieve higher grades. In a third study, researchers found that one of the most powerful ways to goad yourself is to spend time with peers who have already cultivated habits you aspire to. While reading self-improvement books and articles (like this one) can surely help, you will benefit more by directly interacting with high-achievers.
So, if you intend to run a marathon, befriend other long-distance runners and copy their training techniques. Suppose you want to shed a few pounds, try to mimic the eating habits of fitter friends. If you want to rekindle (pun unintended) your reading habit, join a book club. Tired of your cluttered room? Visit friends who maintain tidy homes to imbibe their decluttering skills.
But before you rush to surround yourself with trimmer, tidier and more talented, tranquil and temperate peers, remember there is a caveat. For goals that require sustained effort, if your peers are far ahead, then this can actually work against you. Milkman avers that for social influence to work in the right direction, the difference between you and your peers should not be too stark as this can demotivate you. To reap the benefits of peer influence, interact with people who are further along, but not by too much.
Another way in which you might use peers to stay on track with your goals is to team up with a friend to either work out or study together. By being accountable to each other, both of you may be more regular to the gym with the added plus of company to enliven your routines. Again, you want to pick someone who is slightly ahead or at least similar to you. Pairing up with a friend who is more lethargic or less disciplined may stymie your progress, so choose your partner carefully.
Psychologist Christian Jarrett points out in his book, Be Who You Want: Unlocking the Science of Personality Change, that friends can even shape aspects of your personality, even for twenty-somethings. Research suggests that if you hang out with a highly extroverted person, you too are likely to grow more sociable. Further, if you sit next to a colleague who is disciplined and hardworking, you are more likely to become more conscientious. Likewise, the overall culture of a workplace can also influence employees. When colleagues go out of the way to extend help to one another, the givers, receivers and the company stand to gain. Ultimately, as Jarrett points out, good friends are those who encourage you to be the best version of yourself.
(Aruna Sankaranarayanan is the author of ‘Zero Limits: Things Every 20-Something Should Know.’)