If you’re familiar with the idea of peer pressure, it’s thanks to psychologists from the 1950’s. In the wake of WWII, researchers wanted to understand what had driven so many to follow the Nazis… and proved that we’re social animals, hard-wired to fit in.
One researcher, Solomon Asch, led a series of these peer pressure experiments.
Asch famously found that most people would give the wrong answer to a simple test, if the rest of their group had already voiced that wrong answer (the twist being that all bar one of the group – the ‘naive’ participant – had been told in advance to answer incorrectly). The conclusion? People of all backgrounds and educational levels – even College Professors – would knowingly give the wrong answer, to fit in with the rest of the group.
Basically, the majority of us would sooner go along with what we know to be wrong, than stand up to our peers.
Fast forward to 2005 and Dr. Gregory Berns repeated the experiments using functional MRI – letting him monitor participants’ brain activity, during the experiment – and it turns out social pressure is actually more powerful than Asch realised. In fact, Dr. Berns found that the ‘naive’ participants didn’t first pick the right answer – and then consciously over-ride it, to fit in with the group – they didn’t see the right answer at all. In tracking their brain activity, he realised that listening to the group’s wrong answers literally altered what those individuals’ saw, at a pre-conscious level.
In other words, the people around us have the power to fundamentally change our basic perceptions – what our brains see – in ways that we don’t even register.
This has profound implications for all of us.
In all of our endeavours, we are hugely – and unconsciously – influenced by the company we keep. This applies whether you’re voting for political leaders, trying to quit smoking… or planning careers. The people you surround yourself with have the power to alter your perceptions – what you see, what you don’t, what you believe to be true, right or possible.
Put another way – to quote Jim Rohn – ‘you are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with’.
Accept this, and you can make it work for you. If your group can truly define your reality, then you realize you need to choose your company carefully.
Berns’s study found that when participants bucked the trend, ignored peer pressure and thought for themselves, they experienced a physiological fear response – a flood of chemicals signaling social threat. Standing up to peer pressure causes us genuine anxiety. Yet it took only one ally to diminish that effect… with more allies providing more support.
Take-away? To follow your own path, you need a support team on your side.
You can use this information to help you succeed in your career.
If you’ve got big dreams, find someone who’s proven it’s possible – whatever your ‘it’ is. With this ally in your life, possibility becomes real. Find a mentor you ‘click’ with; someone to learn from, who’s been there, done that and can warn you of the pitfalls. Extend your group – reach out on LinkedIn, join industry associations, talk to others at training events, get involved. Build your sense of what’s possible.
Choose your team carefully. Embrace the people who buoy you, challenge you, expect and encourage the best. Seek out and cultivate relationships with the people who see a reality you want to share. Distance or dilute the people who close off your options, drain or demean you.
Anything worth achieving typically takes time, energy and commitment, and you need vision, determination – and support – to get there.
So… take a look around you. What do your group look like? What do they believe? Do they see possibility and opportunity, or doom and gloom? Do they support your efforts, or limit your options? Keep you moving forwards, or keep you stuck where you are?