Harnessing the power of peer pressure

Many of us internalized the message about the danger of peer pressure early on. When we asked to get a particular brand of shoes or to go to a party because “everyone else” was, our parents snarked, “If everyone else jumped off a cliff, would you do it too?” The honest answer was probably yes, but the right answer, we knew, was “of course not.” Peer pressure, we learned, was this dark force that, like an evil hypnotist, could lead us to follow silly, self destructive trends, to do what our real selves would not do.

It has taken me many years, then, to recognize peer pressure as a potentially legitimate and useful aspect of classroom life. In fact, the loss of some simple forms of social pressure, including something like peer pressure, resulting from my shift to the online classroom has helped me appreciate its power and utility more profoundly.

First, a few mundane personal experiences that led to some elementary insights:

  • deciding I would shift to a solo yoga practice at home and being astonished at how rarely, and how lazily, I did yoga after that
  • living off the beaten path for a short time and being chagrined to discover how much longer it took me to retrieve my lonely trash and recycle bins from the isolated curb
  • noticing how much worse I would dress on days that online work freed me from having to go to campus or out in the world at all

I used to think of peer pressure — if I did at all — along the lines of the after school tv special. Remember the older kid in the leather jacket urging the middle-schooler to “try it, just one puff”? But it’s easy to find examples of productive social pressure where the threat or promise of others’ eyes pushes us to do better. And so I find myself trying to recreate some basic social accountability structures, especially as many of my students’ appear to ever less motivated by the lure of a good grade.

Studies show that it doesn’t take much social pressure to nudge our behavior. Apparently, even the simple printed and posted image of a pair of eyes results in more people paying for coffee offered to them on the honor system. Surely, then, I can better work positive peer pressure into my online classes?

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Some really simple strategies I already use:

  • requiring students to post some completed assignments to a special discussion board with their name included where others students will briefly comment on them
  • explicitly sharing and emphasizing an anonymous grade distribution after key assignments so that students are more likely to see where their falls
  • having a friendly, low stakes, early assignment that encourages students to include a still image or video of themselves
  • asking students to reflect explicitly on how they think social pressure influences their online performance as compared to their face-to-face classes

None of these rudimentary practices would be worth mentioning if not for the longstanding vilification of peer pressure. And it’s a negative reputation that has been earned, to some extent, given the damage that peer pressure can do, especially to already vulnerable students. But I think it is the potentially shaming aspect of peer pressure that is most noxious. And given that some basic forms of peer pressure are unavoidable, perhaps it is worthwhile to focus on nourishing a healthier version of such pressure while deemphasizing its more damaging aspects? After all, isn’t harnessing the noble power of social pressure part of the point of facilitating group experiences in the first place?

Of course, not all students will perform better against a backdrop of healthy, intentionally structured social pressure. But at least this is a tool that is consistent with the nearly unavoidable human propensity to run just a little farther and faster when we think someone is watching. We can wish it were otherwise, touting our allegiance to a lone wolf ethos that cares nothing for the opinions of others. But the more beautiful, complicated truth is probably that we are social creatures who, for better and worse, can be impelled by the gaze of others into acts of astonishing altruism, brilliance and cruelty.

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