Psychology Behind Peer Pressure


It’s midnight and you’re at a house party. You’re surrounded by acquaintances and strangers, who you hold no personal attachments to. You get up to take a swig of Kombucha and then you see them. From across the room, the crack of the bathroom door is open, and you see your childhood friend snorting a line of a white, powdery substance.

Or, imagine it’s 3 a.m., and you’re driving with your friends and you would like to go home, but you don’t want to disappoint them. They insist that you stay out a little more; you feel the disappointment as you try to turn them down.

Or imagine your boyfriend belittling you for not being into BDSM and trying to pressure you to “stop being so vanilla.”

Peer pressure is rooted in psychological factors. Neuroticism — one of the five personality traits related to anxiety, self-doubt, depression and shyness — heavily impacts social influence during adolescence and even through adulthood. Someone who experiences intense feelings of doubt, anxiety and jealousy will be more easily influenced than someone who displaces confidence and awareness.

Beverly Muse, a licensed marriage and family therapist and adjunct psych services counselor, spoke about the psychological damages that arise from peer pressure.

“(Psychological factors) depend on what those damages are,” Muse said. “The more we can accept ourselves, including some of the things about ourselves that we might want to change or we’re not so proud of, the more grounded we can be.”

Muse also expressed how people can overcome peer pressure.

“To recognize most people are putting us down so they can feel taller — and that doesn’t really make them taller — we don’t have to do what everybody else wants, we can be our own individual self,” Muse said.

Peer pressure occurs through developing and impressionable young people. During adolescence, people start looking to their peers for approval or praise. This can lead to direct influence in the choices they make and the actions they take.

Muse said that someone’s vulnerability to peer pressure can depend on their support system and the level of acceptance they have for themselves.

“You’re wired during adolescence — adolescence is that period of time from like 11 to 22 years old — where we are designed to connect with others,” Muse said.

Muse believes in the importance of boundaries and self-discovery.

“Setting boundaries can be really good,” Muse said. “If this is appropriate for me to go do, it doesn’t mean I’m being selfish. It can be self-care. It doesn’t mean I’m not liking you but this is where I have to go.”

Muse compared life experiences and freedom of choice to choosing food at a buffet. She said that, in young adulthood, people are given the chance to “test the world”, but they might only get one chance to try something.

“You might have to only do it once,” Muse said. “What does this person want to do? What is their support level? What are they wanting to try and do they feel like it’s okay to do some of the things, or is it not?”

Muse believes people fall victim to peer pressure because of their desire to be accepted.

“It’s kind of individual for each person, but it’s about belonging, wanting to belong and being accepted,” Muse said. “Nobody wants to be rejected or shunned or banned because we’re not wired that way. We’re wired as an interdependent species, so it gets complicated.”

Psychological Services Counselor Perry Chen believes anyone can be susceptible to peer pressure.

“We are all influenced by those around us, and while it’s nice to have our self-esteem come from within, we are certainly influenced by those around us, whether it’s our family, our friends, our classmates,” Chen said. “So I really think everybody, to varying levels, is susceptible to peer pressure.”

Chen does not believe that people who pressure others are aware of or care about the psychological damages that it can cause.

“I think most times people are not aware and they’re more pushing their agenda,” Chen said. “It’s sort of a more selfish driven thing rather than what is it doing for the other person. I think a lot of times, people aren’t necessarily thoughtful of the other person when they’re pressuring somebody to do something. It varies. I mean, there are certain people who understand that there is damage being caused, but I think, for the most part, my guess is that they’re not aware.”

Art major Ariana Ball knows the importance of friendship when it comes to combating peer pressure.

“I sometimes do feel like I am a lot easier to target just because of the fact that I am very passive,” Ball said. “Something I do is that I realize that I have friends to surround me and friends that do really care about me and then I am not really as vulnerable as I think and that I shouldn’t let other people walk all over me.”

In my experience, it’s been hard to resist peer pressure, especially when you’re struggling to fit in. As Muse said, it happens during adolescence. I fell victim to peer pressure during middle school. As someone who just moved to a new school and was desperate to make friends, I was constantly saying “yes” to everything. I just wanted to be liked. I wanted everyone I met to like me, and for anyone I didn’t know yet, it was my mission to make them like me.

This made me the target of bullying, which I was reluctant to admit. In high school, I flourished and developed a sense of purpose and belonging within myself, while in middle school, I prioritized my social life above everything else.

Even as an adult, reaching the end of adolescence, I still fall to peer pressure in my everyday life. When I’m at work, I feel pressured to work more hours and accept a promotion I didn’t want because I don’t want to disappoint anyone. When I’m with my friends and I feel pressured to stay out, even if I want to go home.

Peer pressure does not have to be just regarding substance abuse. It can be forcing people to experience instances that they feel uncomfortable with or would otherwise like to avoid. It can lead to internal damages that cannot easily be mended. Be mindful of other people’s limits and allow them to maintain their boundaries.