The Power of Positive Peer Pressure

by Marsha Rakestraw

A 2012 survey of teen volunteers revealed that the main reason teens volunteer is because their friends are doing it.

As social animals we pay attention to what those around us are doing; and because we like to feel part of the “in” crowd, we’re often willing to conform so that we’re just as “normal” as everyone else.

One example: More utility companies are starting to take advantage of the “smiley face” strategy to encourage citizens to decrease their energy use. A report is mailed to each household, showing them how well they perform in relation to neighbors like them. A smiley face means a good performance.

Another example: Leaving positive comments after a social media post or news story can inspire more  positive comments and even reduce prejudice.

And it’s making a positive difference. As researcher and social psychologist Robert Cialdini says, “The mere perception of the normal behavior of those around us is very powerful.”

That’s the power of peer pressure.

Peer pressure can have severely negative consequences; but peer pressure can also be immensely positive, when it encourages people to adopt habits and choices that do the most good and least harm for all.

Positive peer pressure can be as simple as one person picking up trash that they (or someone else) dropped on the sidewalk and throwing it away, or initiating a friendly contest at work to see who can log the most commuting miles using alternative transportation.

Positive peer pressure can also influence systems and culture, such as the passage in one city or state of a plastic bag tax or a freedom to marry law, which then ripples to other communities.

Positive peer pressure gives those who are already passionate about an issue, but who may feel afraid to act, the permission and support to take that positive action.

It also inspires reflection — and often, eventually, action — from others who may not know much about the issue.

And when positive peer pressure reaches critical mass, it serves as a tipping point for those who just want to be “normal.”

As humane educators and solutionaries, we can take advantage of the power of positive peer pressure by modeling the message we want to convey, and by helping establish practices and systems that make humane choices as convenient and “normal” as possible.

When have you seen a successful instance of positive peer pressure?