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One Simple Skill to Overcome Peer Pressure

“If your best buddy jumped off a bridge, would you jump too?” Too often, the answer is yes.

Patients die because nurses and doctors who know better go along with bad decisions. Planes crash because crew members go along with plans they know could kill them. Organizations fail because employees sit on their hands in meetings—going along to get along. Social influence can turn geniuses into fools. However, there’s an easy way out of this trap.

We decided to demonstrate the problem by repeating a classic conformity study from the 1950s. We sat seven teenagers around a table and asked each in turn to answer a very simple question.

“Which of the three lines on this poster—Line A, B, or C—matches the line on the other poster?” The answer was very obviously Line C. It was the only line that was even close.

But here’s the trick—the first teenagers to respond to the question were confederates. They were working for us . . . and we told them to give the wrong answer. They all picked Line B.

This answer was obviously wrong, but we were interested in how the group’s answer would affect the final person. The actual subject was not in on the trick. What would the subject say?

Nearly two out of three subjects went along with the crowd. They picked the obviously wrong answer. Afterward, we asked them whether they knew they were picking the wrong answer and they said, “Yes.” They knew the answer was wrong, but they went along anyway, “because everyone else was.”

This is not dissimilar to what Solomon Asch found with adults; we tend to go along with the group—even when we’re confident that the group is wrong and even if we’re fairly certain that our conformity will come back to hurt us! Social influence is tough to buck.

Though we had finished interviewing the subjects, we weren’t quite done with our experiment. In the next round we made a tiny adjustment. We asked one of the confederates to express polite doubt about the group’s answer. The confederate said something similar to, “I might have seen it differently. I think it’s C.”

This polite doubt had an astounding impact on our results. In this condition, nineteen out of twenty subjects gave their actual opinion—they were honest!

Here’s the BS you can use. We have an innate fear of being shunned by valued groups. But even if you feel like you’re the odd person out, don’t stifle your concerns. Simply express them respectfully. It turns out this small dissent can provide powerful permission to the silent concerns of others.

You don’t have to risk being an outcast in order to test your concern. You don’t have to scream and yell. You don’t have to call others names. The quiet, polite expression of doubt can turn the rest of the group from zombies into thinkers.

David

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David Maxfield

David Maxfield is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for organizational change. For thirty years, David has delivered engaging keynotes at prestigious venues including Stanford and Georgetown Universities. David’s work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for three hundred of the Fortune 500.
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16 thoughts on “One Simple Skill to Overcome Peer Pressure”

  1. I am reminded of Kermit the Frog’s line, “It’s not easy being green!”
    I am glad that we are all different and have differing opinions. How boring life would be if we all thought alike.
    Never be afraid to speak up. Even if the final group decision doesn’t go your way, expressing your opinion will result in a better thought out group decision.
    Of course all this is based on the assumption that if company management is involved, they are truly wanting to listen, and not just looking for yes people. In bad situations, one must consider being able to provide for family vs voicing opinions too often! As David has said, delivery is often just as important as the message itself. It has taken me a long time that not everyone is as candid as I am.

  2. I would work college age students who struggle with this everyday. I had the experience of watching 75 guys sit on their hands rather than speak their minds!!!! LOVE THiS

  3. The best tool people have to overcome peer pressure is self confidence.
    When it comes to raising children, build, build, build their self confidence. The ratio of positive feedback over negative feedback should be 10 to 1. (9 positive comments to every negative). This also applies to the workplace. With a little practice, catching people doing something right will become second nature. Building people is a core foundation to leadership.

  4. It is critical that leaders provide a safe environment that not only allows differing opinions to be stressed, but even encourages this. Without a shared pool of knowledge, the “best solution” will likely be overlooked.

  5. This article made me sad. For years I was the person in the room who spoke up when patients were being put at risk due to bad decisions that were made for financial reasons or due to ignorance. I advanced in my career as this was valued, respected and rewarded. Then, we had new leadership who wanted everyone to “go along to get along” and were looking for “yes men”. I ended up being forced out.
    While I moved on to another situation where my integrity was again appreciated, I never really recovered from the cynicism engendered by that period of my life.
    Thank you for expressing that honesty even in the face of others having a different opinion is to be admired.

  6. I have to deal sometimes with people who are religious. Their worldview denies most of reality. To express anything that does not fit into their religious context makes me vulnerable and suspect.

    How can the minority(?) of non-believers ever hold their ground against the tide of feel-good-because-there-is-safety-in-numbers religionists?

  7. A brief aside: My 89-year old mother took part in this same study in the 1950’s at Berkeley. However, rather than 8th and 9th graders, the participants were all women with PhD’s in mathematics–a rare breed in those days! My mom still remembers that she picked the correct line–and wondered whether something was wrong with the OTHER people in the room. As her son, I can say she’s always been pretty confident in her opinions. She recently discovered that the woman who ran the experiment is still at Berkeley, though retired. She’d getting in touch with her, to see how she’s doing.

  8. After watching this video, I have another question plagueing my mind? What causes the one third to differ of opinion despite the peer pressure? Is it just the confidence that John C. Anderson mentioned? Could it be their previous experiences? Or is confidence majorly influenced by previous experiences as Deb Campbell pointed out? Here’s an example:

    As an undergraduate engineering student, I was very eager to “fix things.” In our final year, a lecturer at the university uploaded a document entitled, “How to write as an engineer.” I opened the document and immediately began to fix spelling and formatting errors and then sent the reviewed version back to this lecturer – note the lack of “polite doubt.” Before long, my action was publicly rediculed throughout the department. I was also called into the office of the school director who said that he appreciated my effort to correct something, but obviously my method was incorrect. I was asked to apologise to the lecturer. That said, it was not the first time I got into trouble for trying to “fix” something. After this event, I made minimal attempts to suggest any improvement, though I would say that I am fairly confident to attempt to fix things elsewhere.

    The question then is, would a polite doubt be enough to restore the damage done by peer pressure? I would dearly like to hear what others’ opinions about this

  9. Petrus asks an important question. Here is my take on it: We live in a world of low accountability and “nice” people. Speaking up is not the norm. In fact, the norm is to go to silence until we are so frustrated that we jump right to violence. The result is lots of silence, punctuated by inappropriate violence.

    With this as the background, you decide to speak up–to the lecturer, to your boss, to your colleagues, to your spouse. Is this person going to see this as silence or as violence? Violence, right?

    This means you have to have a way to communicate “This is not an attack!” early in the conversation. The adage I like comes from the military, “Always salute the flag before you disagree with your commanding officer.”

    Saluting the flag means two things: First, show respect for the person, their role, and their intentions (mutual respect). Second, remind the person that you both serve under the same flag. You want what they want (mutual purpose). You are an ally, not an enemy.

    Conclusion: Polite disagreement is a good place to start. However, you might go even further by reiterating mutual purpose and mutual respect. A brief intro written to the lecturer would have helped, though without knowing the situation I don’t know if it would have helped enough. A personal meeting might have worked even better.

    David

    1. David, that is a very helpful illustration. No doubt, this may have made all the difference. I had to admit later that I did expect some hostility to my efforts. Saluting the flag might have kept the peace.

      On that topic for readers who are interested, I discovered another good resource on this particular topic which I believe would confirm and add to “Crucial Conversations.” It is the works by Arbinger Institute entitled “The Anatomy of Peace” and “Leadership and Self-deception.” I hope it is okay that I mention those resources here.

  10. I have a jury story where peer influence changed the opinions of others. Two jurors changed their vote when they saw most jurors voted differently from them. I persisted in my vote because of the clear evidence in the face of personal ridicule and statements of police bias by others. It was a very traumatic experience for me. The result was a hung jury when finally several jurors had the courage to vote according to the evidence. Prosecuting attorney admitted later that they thought this was a very simple open and shut case because of the overwhelming evidence. Your study gives me continuing courage to do and say the right thing.

  11. I agree establishing mutual purpose and mutual respect by saluting the flag is a good idea. Still, I wonder what the results would be if one person (in the know) said “C” politely without the qualifying statement “I might have seen it differently.”

    1. Margaret, I also wondered about that. I also wonder if the test subject would still try to fit in with the majority when the stakes of his answer are higher. What if he knows that the majority has authority to treat him differently for his answer?

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