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January 16, 2014

MAY: Managing those around you

— We call it peer pressure. Repeatedly being offered a choice that you have previously ignored or chosen not to do.

With each offer comes a negative response — perceived or real — reinforcing the urgency to make the choice. If you are wanting to be “transformed,” how important — both positively and negatively — are the people around you?

Research shows that when seeking to understand how we are influenced to change, no influence tool has a more profound or persistent impact than the persuasion of people who make up your social network. The ridicule or praise, the acceptance or rejection, the approval or disapproval of others can do more to assist or destroy our efforts to change our lifestyle than almost any other source. People who are truly going to be transformed must take into account the power that people have on our behavior.

But just how great is the influence? A Heritage Foundation study about 10 years ago found that, in fact, negative peer pressure is a factor in lower test scores. Negative peer pressure proved to be a stronger influence than race or income levels. For example, among fourth-graders, 36 percent said that their “friends make fun of people who try to do well in school.”

Does peer pressure only affect younger people? Some studies are showing that adults may even be more susceptible because their peer group is usually much larger than a teen — not bound by age and closeness.

For an adult, the peer group may include those with similar interests, professions or stage in life. They may include people whose opinion of us matters.

Jeff, about half-way up the corporate ladder, takes out a loan strapping his cash flow to buy a luxury car he cannot afford just so his car is equal with those in his neighborhood. Martha ignores the unethical practices of the others on her sales team so that she doesn’t have to be the one turning them in. Sally allows her 16-year-old to wear too provocative clothing because she wants her daughter to like her.

So how can we use this power? Are there strategies that we can employ so that we can be a positive influence on others — and so that we can ensure that others will have a positive influence on us?

Here are three principles that can make a huge difference.

• Use the power of peer pressure for good — If you are trying to change something in your life, tie into the power of those who have an influence on you. What could we get ourselves to do if we could marshal the support of the people most important to us?

It turns out quite a lot. Research demonstrates that those who simply receive emails from a friend checking on their progress with the attempt to quit smoking, dieting or exercise do a much better job of sticking with their plans than those who receive no support.

Social psychologists learned long ago that if you make a commitment and then share it with friends that you are far more likely to follow through than if you simply make the commitment to yourself. Even better, when you can team up with someone who is attempting to make the same changes, your determination, your success, and the speed of your progress increase exponentially.

Exercise together. Diet together. Work on controlling tempers together. Encourage one another, keep each other in the loop, and hold each other accountable.

• Find strength in numbers — Bad habits are like a social disease. Most of us can recall too many times when we got into trouble or made bad decisions because the friends we were with encouraged us to do so. The negative influence can be seen in huge issues where the law is broken or smaller insignificant sins where very few are hurt. If the people we are with condone and encourage bad behavior, we will almost always fall prey.

But the opposite is true as well. If the people we are with condone, encourage and model good behavior, we are two-thirds more likely to follow their example. If what you are trying to conquer is of a monumental nature, you should seek out support groups to encourage and strengthen your stance. If your battle is much smaller, find a handful of friends who will stay connected with you as you try to change.

• Finally, accept responsibility toward others — Several years ago NBA star Charles Barkley gained national attention off the basketball court by claiming, “I am not a role model …  just because I can dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your children.”

Our natural tendency is to want to be left alone, to not feel a responsibility for the effect of our behavior on others.

Shortly after Barkley’s statement, fellow basketball star Karl Malone responded, “I love Charles Barkley like a brother, and except for the times when we’re banging and pushing each other, we’re great friends. Charles, you can deny being a role model all you want, but I don’t think it’s your decision to make. We don’t choose to be role models, we are chosen. Our only choice is whether to be a good role model or a bad one.”

If your goal this year is to transform a part of your life, manage the influence that others have upon you. Strive to be a positive influence yourself.

— Tom May is the Minister of Discipleship at Eastside Christian Church in Jeffersonville. He is an adjunct instructor in the Communications Department at Indiana University Southeast. Reach him at tgmay001@gmail.com

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