Introducing Peer Pressure
It is part of our fundamental human nature that we want to fit into our local society / environment. We all want a sense of belonging and according to Maslow’s theory of human motivation it is one of five categories of human needs. This is what makes peer pressure possible – the individual has always sought to be feel and be accepted by others as part of the collective and this can lead to both positive and negative effects.
Research has found that peer pressure can encourage altruism and prosocial behaviour but it can also lead to more risk-taking behaviours.
In school, anti-intellectual stigma can have a huge impact on children’s lives. Over 80% of children with IQs over 160 report feeling socially isolated and there is often a fear that children perceived to be intellectually gifted will be labelled disapprovingly as ‘nerds’ or ‘geeks’ by peers. This can lead some children to stop putting in as much effort or even purposefully answer questions incorrectly on their exams in an attempt to ‘fit in’ with everyone else.
Often when we think of peer pressure we think of explicit examples such as a group of teenagers encouraging each other to try smoking, but often peer pressure is implicit. We as individuals collect information about what is socially acceptable or stigmatised in our environment and this forms the basis of our actions, sometimes subconsciously.
It’s easy to see how even our personality can be affected, in an environment which deems kindness to be weakness and respects a strong, dominant, self-serving attitude we may find ourselves being less friendly and more forceful or aloof in our manner. Similarly, if we attend a charity event we may find ourselves surrounded by altruistic individuals who will encourage us to be more generous than we expected to be before going.
Over time the people around us help us to make associations between behaviours e.g. being overweight is undesirable or smiling will lead to more positive social outcomes, and these associations are very resistant to change later on, once formed. For this reason, it is really important, before jumping into a new group or environment, to reflect on whether the values of this group will bring us closer to being the person we want to be or take us further away from our authentic self.
One thing that is important to say is that we all at one point go through experiences which solidify the idea that we cannot please everyone. We are complicated, and almost all of us, especially living in a diverse environment, are a part of several different social groups e.g. our friends from school / university / work, our family, our wider Muslim ummah, our racial / ethnic group etc. It is impossible to conform to all of the social norms within these different groups because sometimes they have mutually exclusive values; one group may promote certain behaviour/s as socially desirable, and another will stigmatise this behaviour or one group may promote dominant behaviour and another may promote humility and soft-spoken confidence; one group may stress independence and the other may stress cooperation and interdependence.
We are left with the difficult decision of what values we think are the most important. Trying to please everyone will cause everyone to be disappointed and this is important to note, because in the end we should not be trying to solely please other human beings. We will always fail if this is our highest aim. We need to ensure that we can still respect ourselves, and only take decisions which are right and rational or believed to be.
“Whoever sought the pleasure of Allah, though it was displeasing to the people, then Allah becomes pleased with him and will make the people pleased with him. And whoever sought the pleasure of the people, though it was displeasing to Allah, then Allah becomes displeased with him and will make the people displeased with him.”
There must be a balance in everything and this desire to conform to social expectations helps us to survive and make social bonds with others, but it must be limited. We are a bit like sheep in the sense that we want to feel a part of the flock but we have the faculty to reason and reject the social norm in situations where group attitudes / behaviours do not align with our values. We cannot allow other people’s wishes to go above the will of God and our own innate sense of right or wrong. Ultimately, in the hadith above it is clear that when we do this we will not get the result we intended to get, because people will still be displeased with us.
Can you think of real-life examples of peer pressure and its effects?