Created | Updated Feb 23, 2005
A fundamental part of growing up is the influence of those around us. This entry looks at the issues of peer pressure and individuality. Before we look any further, it's worth looking at an experiment based on Asch's studies in 1951.
In the experiment, ten teenagers are shown pictures with three lines of different lengths, and they have to put their hand up when whoever is running the experiment points to the longest line.
However, nine of the ten have been secretly told beforehand to go for the second option, regardless of whether it is the longest line or not. The test is on the tenth person - will s/he go with the one they know is the longest line, or follow the crowd in choosing the second option even though it is wrong?
One set of results for the above was,
The first time, the tenth person looked a little unsure, but then followed suit even though he knew the answer was incorrect.
The second time, they were reminded again that they had to put their hand up for the longest line... this time the tenth person took longer to come to a decision, but still felt the need to go with the group although he knew they were still wrong.
Peer pressure is still as common today as it was in the 1950s - maybe even more so with the increasing importance attached to music, computer games and fashion. At the start of your teens, you start new schools, experiment with new things and everyone is expected to be clones all doing the same thing all of the time; if you don't you get left out or bullied but then as you get older attitudes change. Whether you go with peer pressure or not you still get hassle - just in different ways.
As an indication of peer pressure and individuality, here are some rough guidelines which outline how we develop our identities through the crucial teenage period.
From the ages of 11 - 12, full group identity is predominant.
From the ages of 12 - 13, full group identity is still at the fore with elements of individual identity creeping in.
At ages 13 - 14, we develop stronger personal identities while still holding on to a group identity too.
At ages 15 - 16, we have usually carved out our own identities within a group.
From the age of 17, onwards we have usually created our own full identity, either in or out of a group.
Here is one Researcher's advice on how to deal with the constant shifting of group dynamics. You never know, it could work for you...
I'm lucky in that I managed to stay friends with everyone, both in the 'cool' crowd and those who weren't. It has to be said that I have much more fun now with those who weren't considered cool as they're not afraid to act as themselves rather than 'Sweet Valley High'1 stereotypes.
With the other group, we started clubbing at about 15 and went out to pubs even earlier and there was much more pressure within the group to be something you weren't. I've since been told by several of what was the 'cool' crowd that they really respect me for being able to handle both sides to the pressure and quite a few of them have said that they would have liked to have been able to have my way of thinking and be friends with everyone.
In my leaving book I had about 60 messages, probably 50 of which were sincerely written by true friends. In the 'cool' crowds leaving books there were about 15 messages half of whom I know were insincere as they have spent the past two years moaning about each other and saying how they can't wait to get away from each other. So in response to conforming to peer pressure in order to fit in, while it might seem necessary in your early teens, as the years go on you'll be much happier being yourself as you'll end up with much more respect.
The following Researcher's story has a lesson for parents or guardians of teenagers who will go to any lengths to become part of a group. The lesson seems to be; understand what is going on, be compassionate but know where to draw that very fine line. It's better to know where your charges are and what they are doing.
Peer pressure is not something I have lots of time for. I don't generally tend to think that because other people do something, I should. But, I think it's my right to choose, not my parents.
When I was about 17, my group of friends started pubbing and clubbing on a regular basis. My mother wasn't terribly pleased with the idea of underage drinking on my part, but she didn't try to stop me. My friend's parents, however, didn't like the fact that our group of friends saw a good time as going out to the pub and having a few drinks, then going on to a club or something and dancing until 2am. They always came to pick her up at around 11.30pm or something. So when her 18th birthday came around, she said she was staying over at a friend's house, and that they would probably go to the cinema - something her parents would allow - they didn't want to let her do what her peers did. This was a lie of course, we went to the pub, and had a great time. But my friend didn't want to have to be different, she wanted to choose herself, and I think she'd a right to, it just seems sad that her parents pushed her so much that she had to lie to them, even on the day when she technically became an adult.
Individuality and Identity
It's true that teenagers tend to be a trendy bunch. At the drop of a hat teenagers will buy/listen to/eat whatever everyone else seems to favour at the moment. Very prevalent in the teenage mind is the idea that if they don't behave a certain way, they will be perceived as uncool, stupid, or even, unfortunately, gay, which is a very potent insult to someone who is still learning about sexuality.
Finding a root cause for this behaviour is not an easy task. One could point to the human desire to belong to a group, which drives teenagers, as well as adults, into exhibiting a certain behaviour which is typical of the sort of group they wish to belong to.
Others point to 'greedy corporations', which perpetuate the idea that one has to buy a certain brand of product to be considered normal and/or cool, in order to sell a product which has little use other than showing off that one is willing to pay large sums of money to be cool. Clothing makers such as Nike, The Gap, and DKNY come to mind.
Perhaps the cause is television, the method of delivery for various unproductive ideas, most in the form of popular television shows as well as commercials. Typically, the characters populating television shows have lives that are so exciting and happy that the viewers unconsciously (or consciously) take away the message, 'If I want my life to be like that, I should behave that way. I'll start by changing the way I look to the way that person looks, then I'll make sure to own what that person owns, and associate with the same sort of people that person is surrounded with.'
Which cause is it? While it's obvious that all three of these, as well as others, contribute to the problem, it's likely that no one factor or cause is to blame.
Another curious sort of behaviour is teenagers' desire to be different from other people, as well as being part of a group. This paradoxical situation is easiest to see when looking at certain groups of teenagers, such as those labelled Goths, Stoners, Freaks, etc. Within those groups there seems to be the desire to be different, and the way to be different is to dress like everyone else in some social fringe group. While these teens will sneer at the Preppies, Jocks, or the popular group, who all display their social status by dressing alike, they have no qualms about wearing their own distinctive costumes. In other words, these teens choose to be different by all dressing the same way.
I was a radical as a teen. I fitted in with a group of friends who didn't fit into any of the stereotypes at the time. I, however, was freely able to move from one group to another to the sports guys, being one myself. However, at our ten year reunion it was very interesting. About 50 of us turned up and for the meal there were five tables. At one sat all the jocks, except me, at another the musicians, at another the swats, at another all the cool kids from ten years back. Where was I? I was at a table of misfits. To be honest though we did all mingle before and after but after ten years we could still be split in the same way.
Being 'one of the gang' and 'fitting in' is just as important a decade after leaving school as the above experience highlights. We may have developed our own identities and carved out our individual niches but put us with our past peers and we revert back to the way we used to be and follow the habits we were once accustomed to.
It seems almost as if teens gravitate towards those stereotypes (Goth, Prep, Jock, etc). You notice it a lot during secondary school, and if we listen to our parents, siblings, or children, things haven't changed over the past 50 years. It's ironic though, how you see media everywhere stressing the importance of being different, but when you look at people in advertisements or television programmes, they're all dressed the same.
Although the importance of individuality has been stressed in the above, there are extremes. We usually make our individual mark through the clothes we wear, the music we listen to and the activities we participate in. There are times, however, when we are so desperate to make our mark on our peers and families that we don't think of the consequences of our actions. As one Researcher points out;
I do feel sorry for all those people that do something permanent in an attempt to 'be different'. An extreme example of this that I saw recently with a group of high school kids was an abundance of facial piercings. Not just earings or nose-rings, but about 10 - 15 piercings per teen (nose, eyebrow, lip, cheek, rivets in the ear, etc). That sure is going to suck in five to six years when they graduate from college and try to get some corporate job.
Some International Perspectives
Below are some of our Researchers' personal experiences and perspectives of the peer pressure/identity issues. These come from East and West and give an insight into what is truly a global phenomenon.
In America, at least, you can be anywhere in the country and the stereotypical teenager will haunt you. They will have their Abercrombie and Gap clothing and they'll be listening to band-of-the-moment (Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, Limp Bizkit, etc) which is the same everywhere thanks to the ubiquitous television channel MTV. Not to say that all teenagers are like that - no, no. But this group of them is the most widespread, and thus the perceived paradigm for us all.
Another Researcher adds;
Many American teenagers are quite intelligent, free thinking, and capable of doing great things, but because they are free thinking, and individual, they are mocked, taunted, broken, and held down.
It seems that American society attempts to destroy those that are some of the greatest among them.
The following Researcher sums up the feelings expressed above from an American teenager's point of view;
As an actual American teenager I can shed a bit of new light into this arena. First off yes, individuality is taking off and plummeting at the same time. You see some people want to be as 'different' as they possibly can! Others, want to be exactly like some image or some person on television. This is probably not new news. However, one thing I did not see mentioned was that many kids that hop onto the 'cool' train of life are riding the life high. They think they are cool, they believe they are cool, therefore, it makes no difference to them what others think.
What shocks me is that through many of the years the cool group has been the rude self-centred group. This has always caused me to wonder why? Why are the rude and childish physical brutes attractive and why is the snobbish 'ewww get away from me' high squeeky voice desired? I know this is called major stereotype but I am in a US public school and these people you see on Saved by the Bell and Teen movies such as 'Can't hardly Wait' and 'Scream' really do exist. It's true.
Here is a Dutch Researcher's response to the comments made above about the USA.
Well, maybe that's the way in America, but I don't think it's all the same here in Holland. I have seen on several occasions that when you just be yourself, say what you think, not what the group thinks, wear the clothes that you like and so on, you'll get some kind of respect from all of the groups. I've been there, and when I was a teenager, I found myself in the middle of all the groups but not actually 'belonging' to one. Just hang around with the person (or group) that you feel like hanging out with at that time. As I said, it worked for me.
South East Asia
The issue of peer pressure and identity in the USA sparked a lot of comments. This Researcher gives an account of what happens in South East Asia.
Peer pressure is not a major problem here. In Thailand and Japan the teenage girls do stick very tightly to their trends, mini skirts and huge shoes, but it is in no way harmful and here in Thailand being cool doesn't mean being rude or disrespectful. That's what I love about Asia. We're not split into very definite groups and we mix and mingle a lot. There is always that odd person in the grade who seems dumb or incapable of doing anything right, but they are usually well supported by the others and are not the subject of constant teasing. Many people will tease them, but others will object and be protective. No group is considered higher than the rest (although many think they are). The music trends do seem to revolve around boy bands and teen girl singers, but that is usual here too, along with the Teen Thai singers. The problem can be rap and rock music that encourages all kinds of -ism's (racism, sexism, etc).
To Sum Up
On this particular issue consider the following; just as a typical 18 year old tends to have more wisdom than does a 10 year old, so does a 40 year old have more wisdom than an 18 year old. This is not parental arrogance and oppression, it's human nature. Learn from those around you of all ages as most people are trying to help, not hinder.