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The advice "Just Say No" may not always work, but knowing the psychology behind peer pressure can help you maintain control when you’re experiencing it.

Hosted by: Brit Garner
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[INTRO ♪].

Peer pressure is talked about so much that it can seem a little bit like a joke, especially when you’re a teenager. But actually experiencing peer pressure can be so uncomfortable.

Like, did you really want to run that 10K with your super athletic roommates? Maybe not, but they just asked so many times that it was easier to go do it than listen to them ask again. You’ve probably been told that to resist peer pressure, you should “just say no,” but surprise: that doesn’t always seem to work.

And neither did that DARE program that was everywhere in the ‘90s. Psychologically speaking, it totally makes sense that we’d want to give in to social norms—but that doesn’t mean it’s always a good thing. Thankfully, researchers have come up with some better ideas for resisting peer pressure.

So the next time your roommates try to drag you on a run, you’ll be prepared. Psychologists believe that we’re basically hard-wired to want to feel like we belong. After all, in our evolutionary past, cooperating with groups was necessary for people to survive.

Because of this, social norms have a huge effect on our behavior—especially ones called injunctive norms, which tell us how society thinks we should behave in certain situations. These norms aren’t necessarily bad. For example, they’re part of why you’d stop at a red light or pay a friend back when they loan you money.

But following them can also cause us to act in risky or dangerous ways to fit in. In an early demonstration of this effect from 1968, 58 male college students were asked to fill out questionnaires about going to an urban school. Then, while they did, the room they were in started to fill with smoke.

When the participants were in the room alone, most of them went to get help. But when they were in groups, they were much less likely to. Which seems… pretty weird.

One possible explanation for this is that the participants looked at other people’s behavior to try and figure out how they should respond. If the other people didn’t seem stressed by the smoke, they might have decided that it wasn’t something they had to worry about. Now, this was just an experiment, but things like this happen all the time in real life.

Like, imagine you’re hanging out with your buddies, and someone turns on the worst, most horrible-sounding music you can possibly imagine. Except, you don’t say anything, and neither does anybody else. So you’re all just sort of politely sitting there, and you might come to the conclusion that your friends actually enjoy this terrible music, and maybe you’re the problem.

Psychologists actually have a name for this concept: pluralistic ignorance. It's the idea that a group might feel a certain way, but nobody in the group realizes it because everyone is keeping their true feelings to themselves. Because of this, you might come to think a certain social norm exists—like that smoky rooms are totally normal—even if everybody else is secretly just as uncomfortable with the situation.

Pluralistic ignorance can play a huge role in peer pressure, and psychologists have also suggested it might be a factor in the heavy drinking that often occurs on college campuses. In a 1993 study at Princeton University, researchers asked 132 undergrads how they felt about drinking. They also asked them how they thought the average student felt about it.

Participants generally said that they felt less okay with heavy drinking at college than the hypothetical average student. But turns out that this was actually something a lot of people said. In other words, most people thought their peers were way more okay with heavy drinking than they actually were.

Recent studies have also confirmed that pluralistic ignorance plays a role in all kinds of other situations, too, from cigarette smoking and drug use to beliefs about mental health treatments. So it’s not only relevant to that lecture your high school teachers might have given you before you went off to college. The nice thing is, though, this concept can also help you resist peer pressure.

See, people often give in to something because they assume everyone agrees it’s right. So psychologists have suggested that, if you know about pluralistic ignorance, it might reduce the pressure you feel to conform with the group. And research has backed this up.

In a 1998 study with 143 college students, knowing about pluralistic ignorance helped one group drink less, compared to students who didn't learn about it. And a 2018 study about gender norms showed similar results. When men were shown that most people were in favor of gender equality, they were more likely to say they supported it as well, compared to groups who were told something else.

While there may have been other variables at play in both of these studies, this suggests that having a little psychology knowledge in your back pocket can totally help you out in the real world. It’s like having a secret window into your friends’ brains. So, the next time someone puts on that horrible playlist, speak up.

You may find that other people were just as uncomfortable as you were, but didn’t want to be the first person to admit it. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Psych, and special thanks to our patrons on Patreon! There’s so much psychology to explore out there, and we’re thankful for all of you who make it possible.

If you want to help us keep making episodes like this one, you can go to patreon.com/scishow. [OUTRO ♪].