A few months ago, I wrote about motivation and referenced the famous Nike “Just do it!” slogan, which got me thinking about some other 1980s and 1990s advertising campaigns and their celebrity messengers. One of the classics that came to mind was the “Just say no!” campaign championed by first lady Nancy Reagan, which encouraged young people to stand up to their peers and say “no” to drugs. The root of the message was a simple call to resist the pressure from friends and society and to make individual, positive choices. An unfortunate byproduct of that campaign and others like it is that many people have skewed perceptions of “peer pressure” as only a negative. However, when harnessed effectively, peer pressure or peer influence can be a powerful tool in supporting and maintaining positive choices.
Take a minute to think about a few groups that you are, or have been a part of (or better yet, in charge of). First, think about a group that had an overwhelming positive feel and culture. Who were the tone setters? What happened when the group faced adversity or when one or more members did something disruptive or unproductive? Now think about a group that felt chaotic and uncomfortable. Who were the tone setters in that group? How were adversity and any disruptions addressed?
When you reflect on the positive group experience, the people who are the most salient in your memory are likely overwhelmingly positive, calm, and probably charismatic. When reflecting on a negative experience, the individuals who come to mind were likely unhappy and disruptive, and probably demanded a disproportionate amount of everyone’s time and attention to address their behavior(s) or interpersonal issues. In general, a group’s dynamic and overall culture is shaped by a few key individuals. The good news for those who work in recreation is that by understanding how and why individuals become influential, they can be proactive in working behind the scenes to encourage groups to look to positive rather than disruptive tone setters.
Super Model = Super Power
Each of us has people we look up to or aspire to be like. Of course, celebrity and dashing good looks can increase an individual’s appeal, but the reality is that most choices are made to model those individuals with whom we interact on a regular basis. So, why do we choose to pattern our behavior and thoughts after certain people while seemingly ignoring others? Simply put, we tend to do what we see as “the norm” for people whom we perceive to be similar to ourselves in a given situation.
Let’s look at the initial part of the statement first. As a species, we have evolved to act the way we see others acting in order to fit in to a group. In the famous Asch-Line study (1951), individuals frequently agreed with the group (conspirators affiliated with the researchers) and gave answers they knew to be incorrect just to conform to the group (whom they had only recently met). Whenever there are groups (think teams, classes, even organizational departments), individual participants are predisposed to do what they believe will help them to best fit in. If negative, disruptive, and aggressive behavior is what they see, they will likely follow that. Conversely, if individuals witness positivity, kindness, and a sense of teamwork, then that is how they are likely to behave.
Considering the second part of the statement, numerous studies have demonstrated that individuals are more likely to emulate the behavior of someone whom they either believe is already similar to them, or whom they aspire to be like. The similarities can be real or perceived, and may be clearly evident or almost impossible for an observer to understand. For example, in general, boys are more likely to emulate a male model and girls are more likely to emulate a female one. Individuals who see themselves as athletic are likely to do what they see a successful athlete do, while those who view themselves as pranksters are more likely to pattern their behavior after a class clown. As a recreation leader, it’s important to understand that, in every group, individuals are choosing (consciously or not) to act like those members of the group they perceive to be most like them.
Bringing It All Together
At this point you might be asking yourself, “What does this have to do with me or my programs?” The short answer is that by being cognizant, each member of a group is likely to pattern behavior after the models they see as similar to themselves or would like to become. So, in order to establish the type of positive dynamic desired, you should try to influence who the majority of the group views as models. Sounds easy, right? In reality, influencing who people look to isn’t exactly formulaic either.
In the ideal situation, a leader, coach, or instructor sets the tone by modeling positive/pro-social behavior that is then hopefully emulated by the group participants. And the reality is that this does happen frequently. But there are other situations where there isn’t a clear leader or a leader models undesirable attitudes or behaviors or one or more participants act out and become a negative model. In situations like these, consider the following:
First, when a clear leader is missing (for example, adult sports teams, open rec time, etc.), then it’s incumbent on you and your organization to establish, model, and enforce the type of behavior and attitude you want to see. If you expect fair play and sportsmanship, then require it, sanction those who play unfairly, and model those values in your own actions and interactions.
Second, if you have programs with leaders who model undesirable behavior (the overly aggressive youth-sports coach, a chronically negative class instructor, etc.), then a conversation is necessary, and the positive behaviors of others (coaches, instructors) should be spotlighted and celebrated. By shifting attention to positive models, there is a greater chance the majority of participants will do what they see being praised and supported.
Finally, if individual participants consistently act out or cause unrest, try these tips. First, take an honest look at the program. Frequently poor behaviors (especially in children’s programs) are the result of an activity that is too simple, too complex, or too routine for the participants. By working to fit the program to the participants, it’s entirely possible to eliminate problem behaviors before they become normal. Second, if you deicide the program is not the issue, then you can work to shift attention and approval to those individuals who are “with the program,” and by doing so, help the majority of the group to stay positive. Usually, once the individual who was causing problems stops getting attention and sees another behavior being reinforced, he or she is likely to adapt their own actions to the norms of the larger group.
In the end, every group and individual is different. Fortunately, for all of us who work with an ever-shifting and evolving range of groups, some things remain constant. Hopefully, by keeping these ideas in mind, you can spend less time focusing on problem behavior and more time enjoying the energy that flows from great group dynamics.
Dr. Zachary Mural is a professional educator and youth-development professional with more than 20 years of experience. He holds a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology and Technology and a M.A. in Youth Development, and is currently the CEO of Youth Development Consulting, Regional Director of Private Schools for Minnieland Academy in Manassas, Va., and an Expert Online Training faculty member. Reach him at email@example.com.