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Have you ever found yourself overthinking about that party you did not go to or the sunset you missed out, and now that is the only thing you can think about? Or maybe something even smaller than that? I bet so. We all have felt that way at least once in our lives.  

FOMO, a constant in our lives 

This feeling can be described as FOMO – fear of missing out – and not only it is common, but it also plays a big role in our lives. Even in the smallest decisions we take into consideration (most of the time unintentionally) what our peers do or what will they think of us.  And despite being aware to some extent that our actions are affected by others, the question is: do we truly understand how broad/strong this influence can be? 

Imagine the following situation: you are in a room full of strangers, and all of you are being asked the same simple questions. In the first round of questions, you are the last one to answer. All before you give the correct answer and, when your turn comes, give the correct answer as well. However, in another round, at some point those before you all make a very evident mistake, giving the wrong answer. So, what would you do? Give the (correct) answer that you are sure about, or conform to what others said and give the wrong answer as well? 

As obvious as it may seem to answer correctly independently of the other answers, almost 75% of the people did not, despite knowing the right answer, and conformed to the group’s incorrect answer.

Shocking results, right? However, this experience only confirms the considerable influence that others have in our actions, which can be reflected in all aspects of our daily life, from college performance to drug consumption. 

Peer influence is related with many other situations  

Social Identity Theory 

For starters, in order to understand why people behave in such a way it is necessary to grasp the basics of Social Identity Theory. This concept first appeared in 1979, when Henri Tajfel and John Turner made a breakthrough in social psychology, changing the way we perceive intergroup behaviour.  

Whether we like it or not, our brains tend to categorize society into a variety of groups, going as far as also categorizing ourselves, be it by social class rank or favourite football team. This is a common cognitive process, vital for humans to function as a society. Nevertheless, such train of thought may result in the exaggeration of both the differences between the groups and similarities within the same group. People in a group(the in-groups), by considering their peers similar between each other and acting alike, distinguish themselves from those who belong to other groups (the out-groups) and, consequently, tend to view them in a negative light as to enhance their own self-image. 

Aside from the prejudice and discrimination matters which may arise from this, social identity is crucial in providing pride and self-esteem to an individual. By affiliating oneself with a group, one adopts its identity and will act accordingly to that group’s characteristics in order to preserve their sense of belonging. To illustrate this, we do not need to go far from our own realities. By categorizing ourselves as students, we embrace that identity and start to behave in ways we believe students do (by conforming to the norms of the group). 

When we belong to a group, we start to see ourselves as the same and to act identically 

Boomerang effect 

Another concept that arises when discussing peer influence is the boomerang effect. This effect occurs when efforts to persuade someone result instead in the opposite outcome.To further understand this concept, we can think of an actual boomerang. If there is some wind, throw it to one direction and it may go to one completely different from what you wanted.  

There are many real-life examples demonstrating this effect, some by which you might have been through already, except you did not know it was, in fact, the boomerang effect.

A simple example is when we are kids, and many times, when told not to do something, we intentionally do the opposite. We can even go as far as thinking of situations when parents forbid teenagers to go out and drink alcoholic beverages, which only result is having them wanting to do so even more. Thus, their efforts only contribute to the outcome being the opposite of what they intend originally. This effect demonstrates that one must be careful on advising close peers, for the effect can be precisely the opposite. 

Is peer influence positive or negative? 

The human vulnerability when it comes to peer influence on decision making can have both negative and positive consequences. As to illustrate this idea, we may consider a reality that is familiar to us all, our academic life: let’s suppose that you belong to a well-behaved group of friends that studies a lot and has good grades. Naturally, your sense of belonging will motivate you to increase your study hours, as to make sure you are still welcome in that group, even if done unconsciously. This is a clear example of how our peers can have a positive influence in our lives. However, the opposite can also be true: if your group of friends decide to lower their academic performance because they shifted their priorities and would rather engage in other activities, you will not enjoy feeling an outsider and will gradually shift your priorities as well, perhaps leading to lower your performance as well, until you match the group’s standards. 

The risks associated with this issue are found mostly in early ages, among which tolerance is lower and the risk of dependency is higher. As so, peers and family have a key role in promoting good behaviours during adolescence, not only serving as role models, but also providing easy access and encouragement in performing good actions. As the Social Learning Theory suggests, teenagers do not need to observe a given action in order to adopt it, they only need to get acceptance from the peer group in order to be able to perform that action. 

An important factor that is proven to impact the extent to which an individual is influenced by its peers is the reciprocity of the relationships in discussion: individuals may only be affected by social groups they feel they belong to and the peers they are particularly attached to may have a stronger impact in their decision-making. Studies show that the negative influence of the peer group is usually more connected to the involvement in risk behaviours, whilst the positive influence is more connected with protective behaviours. Stronger friendships may lead teenagers to an appropriate environment to develop in a healthy way and to achieve good academic results.  

Negative peer influence can lead us to pursue negative habits 

All in all, the need for belonging is something common to all of us, humans, and it is that same need that leads us to categorize people, to conform with groups, and to behave in ways we never thought we would. Nonetheless, peer influence will always be present in our lives, and as mentioned previously, it can have both positive and negative impacts, and we can try to use it in our favour, by surrounding ourselves with the right people.  

Sources: THALER, Richard; SUNSTEIN, Cass – Nudge. 3ª edição. Lisboa: Leya, 2021Simply psychology, Science Direct, Raising Children, National Center for Biotechnology Information, SpringerLink, Behavioural Scientist, Taylor & Francis Online       

Benedita Elias

Mariana Gomes

Madalena Andrade

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