The Upsides of Peer Pressure

For better and for worse, we are the products of our social environments. The people with whom we associate affect our tastes, mannerisms, and activities, often negatively. Through their influence or by their example, our friends may introduce us to smoking and swearing. Or worse, to gaming, television, and other similarly unproductive endeavors.

But this is just one side of the story. Our friends may equally well pressure us to exercise more or work harder. Spend enough time with someone who is genuinely motivated, and you’ll find yourself deriving pleasure from the pursuit of knowledge. Forget alcohol and drugs, our peers can introduce us to fractals and infinities, or to hiking and the outdoors.

In general, I’d prefer that we minimize the influence of others on ourselves, that we shed the desire to impress our peers, and that we instead look inward for validation. However, undesirable as these tendencies may be, as long as they are there, why not get something out of them? If we’d like to become more fit, more outgoing, or more academically at ease, why not use peer pressure as a motivator?

Exercise is the clearest example. If the prospect of burning fat and gaining strength isn’t enough, get a workout buddy. You’ll end up running harder and doing more crunches to look good in front of him. Back in high school, I went jogging with this girl I liked. She was quite athletic, and hoping to impress her, I pushed myself much farther than I otherwise would have. Regardless of whether anything else materialized from that, I got a better workout than I would have had I gone by myself. You don’t even need to be attracted to your partner. We all care about our reputations; the urge to show off is rather primitive.

Another plus is that involving others make you accountable to them. This is great for establishing regularity in your schedule. If you agree on weekly times to meet at the gym or to check homework assignments, skipping a day would mean letting others down. Without that push, it would be so easy to defer the gym or the homework assignment until later. Blogging with Ren enables me to keep a weekly posting schedule, whereas I might otherwise skip posting during my busier weeks.

The same applies to academics. I learned this freshman year from my math class. The twelve or so of us adopted the habit of working on the problems throughout the week and doing as much as we could on our own. The night before the due date, we would meet in the basement of Grays Dormitory and share our solutions. At first glance, it seems that this would lead to people attempting to free-ride off of other people’s solutions. However, the expectation that everyone would contribute helped keep everyone on task. The same can be said of partner projects or of any situation where you combine a little bit of accountability with the desire to impress.

I should emphasize that the process of learning is a reward in itself. The same is true of exercising and socializing. Peer pressure is no substitute for that. But recognize that we respond to the people around us and that this need not be bad. Yes, it can lead to laziness, but it can conversely be a fantastic source of motivation. So we should surround ourselves with athletic people, with hard-workers, with interesting and passionate individuals. On the surface, peer pressure is about letting others change us. But when we put thought into the decision of whose company to keep, peer pressure becomes a tool we can use to change ourselves.