“Everyone else is doing it!” Does that sound familiar? A phrase that hearkens back to grade school days, or even beyond: if all my friends are doing something, why can’t I? “Jimmy’s Mom lets him eat candy every day!”; “If all the cool kids are seeing that R-rated movie, why shouldn’t I?”; “Everyone in my grade has already tried drinking and drugs except me!”; “I must be the only virgin left in college”; and the lists goes on and on. Peer pressure, or even the appearance of it, can be a powerful thing. And while society is fairly well equipped to handle peer pressure in childhood and adolescence, we may not know how to deal so well with “Everyone is doing it” as adults.
It is a harmful mindset – one in which risky behaviours like using drugs, gambling, or flirting with the law, are made to seem more socially acceptable as it’s implied that everyone is already doing it. The danger is even greater for young adults – in addition to navigating such difficulties as discovering their identities and establishing their adult lives and relationships, their actual physiology also puts them at risk as, in late adolescence and early adulthood, brain chemistry is quite susceptible to the social rewards that accompany risky behaviour (Webber, Soder, Potts, Park, and Bornolova, 2017). We have intrinsic motives for wishing to conform to our peers: we seek to avoid rejection and be accepted by the members of our social group, we’re creating or maintaining our image, or aligning ourselves with those we feel have higher status (Fishbach & Tu, 2016; Nail, MacDonald, & Levy, 2000). If our social identity defines who we are, then we might feel more inclined to imitate the behaviour of someone we seek to emulate.
Advertisers use this desire to belong in order to sell – whether it be alcohol, food, clothing, vacations, gaming, or any other risky choice – in the same way a drug dealer would pressure a high-schooler to try their product. Even though the adult approach is far more polished, we shouldn’t be taken in by such schoolyard tactics as peer pressure: “Everyone is doing it!” Why can we see clearly enough to dissuade our children, and yet fall for the same strategies ourselves? And why should I conform even if everyone is acting inappropriately, for as Saint Augustine is reported to have said, “Right is right even if no one is doing it; wrong is wrong even if everyone is doing it.”?