Our health choices are constantly influenced by our friends, both consciously or unconsciously.
We often think that self-control comes from within, yet many of our actions depend just as much on our friends and family as ourselves. Those we surround ourselves with have the power to make us fatter, drink more alcohol, care less about the environment and be more risky with sun protection, among many things.
This is not simply peer pressure, in which you deliberately act in a certain way to fit in with the group. Instead, it is largely unconscious. Beneath your awareness, your brain is constantly picking up on cues from the people around you to inform your behaviour. And the consequences can be serious.
It is now well accepted that our personal sense of self is derived from other people. “The more of your identity you draw from a group, even when you’re not around that group, the more likely you are to uphold those values,” says Amber Gaffney, a social psychologist from Humboldt State University. “If a big part of how you identify is as a student from a certain university, or like me an academic, then that’s what you take with you into most interactions with others. I see things first through my lens as an academic.” Students, for instance, tend to have stronger attitudes towards things like legalising drugs or supporting environmental sustainability than the rest of the population.
These are called social norms. And while these norms are usually stable, some interesting things happen if just one person in the associated group acts out of character.
Consider the following study, which found that people were likely to change their opinion on green travel if they found out their peers were acting hypocritically.
The students from Humboldt State University reside in a small, socially liberal town in northern California which takes pride in its environmental credentials. The students there are largely very environmentally conscious, too. You would expect that a peer’s disregard for carbon emissions would not go down well.
After listening to an interview with a student at the university who stressed the importance of walking or cycling short distances rather than taking a car, and then later admitting to driving to the interview, the participants were asked about their own environmental views. They did this while sat next to an actor. The actor took the role of either a third student wearing a university sweatshirt, or a professional in smart clothing. When the hypocrisy of the interviewee was revealed, the actor either made a negative remark about their behaviour or stayed quiet.
Compiled by Olalekan Adeleye