The Positive Side of Peer Pressure

“If all of your friends jumped off a bridge, would you?”

The phrase “peer pressure” carries a negative connotation. Just because everyone else is being mean to Joey doesn’t mean you need to be; just because Sarah is wearing makeup and high heels doesn’t mean you should; just because everyone else decided to cut class doesn’t make it ok. And then we grow up and become more responsible and make wiser decisions (or so we hope), and the phrase all but disappears from vocabulary. But the reality is that peer pressure lives on. Yet in its adult context, it more often than not promotes positive rather than negative behavior. In fact, I’d argue it is the driving force behind some of our most important societal advancements.

Diversity in the workplace. A few convincing proponents are peer-pressuring those in positions of power to rethink gender equality in corporate America. There is Cindy Gallop, a former boss of mine, within the marketing industry calling out every company, organization, photo, jury selection, she sees for lack of diversity. As a highly-respected peer of many of the most powerful marketing industry vets, Cindy will no doubt affect future hiring decisions. Or look at the number of Fortune 500 organizations (including IBM, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook) who have invested in Girls Who Code, a non-profit organization whose mission is to close the gender gap in technology. Would you want to be a big tech company not investing in this mission?

Nutrition standards. We see similar things happening in the food industry, where packaged goods companies can no longer afford to ignore their contribution to the childhood obesity epidemic, lest they be left in the organic dust of their industry peers. They are feverishly developing new products, altering the recipes on existing products and making new company acquisitions to increase their investment in cleaner, healthier options. Speaking on behalf of my Brooklyn mom friends, I don’t think any of us would risk being seen serving anything but the lower sugar content, organic juice boxes at our kids’ birthday parties! And my children know better than to request soda instead. That is peer pressure hard at work.

And then of course, there is the environment. It has become increasingly harder for each of us to make the more convenient choice not to recycle, or not to compost (if it’s offered), and you must admit you’re that much more careful with your trash-handling behavior when friends are over for dinner. On a much grander scale, last Thursday’s episode of The Daily podcast described “peer pressure-based diplomacy and cooperation” as the greatest influence on the establishment of the Paris Climate Accord, to which 193 of 195 country leaders agreed in 2015 despite major, seemingly irreconcilable differences in many other areas. (It’s unfortunate we have a President who still thinks, like a child, that succumbing to peer pressure suggests weakness… so make that 192 countries as of last week. But I digress.)

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Some smart businesses and organizations have figured out ways to leverage positive peer pressure in their marketing, communications and of course fundraising. I dare you to leave your food wrappings behind on a JetBlue flight after hearing the announcement that one of the ways they can keep offering some of the lowest ticket prices in the industry is by asking customers to clean up their own area prior to exiting. Or what about those signs that give you the stare-down in hotel bathrooms as you contemplate leaving your once-used towel on the floor to be washed, inevitably wasting thousands of gallons of water? And how crappy do you feel saying “no” when you’re asked by an environmental organization representative if you “have a few minutes (translation: dollars) today to help save the environment?”

No doubt most of us – whether just as people or as company representatives – are making better decisions in part (small or big) because we believe they are the right ones. But often, these decisions are also the product of peer pressure and the desire for self-, brand- or business-preservation. It would be hard to make what are often more costly and less convenient (at least in the near term) choices otherwise. As long they’re contributing to the greater good, however, we shouldn’t worry too much about the motivation. Just keep that peer pressure coming; so much depends on it.

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