Your Brain on Peer Pressure

Ice Bucket Challenge Peer Pressure

One of our strongest desires, as human beings, is to belong. Sure, Maslow’s Pyramid puts social status right in the middle, behind more obvious physical needs, like food, shelter, and safety. But humans are social animals—we also need each other.

Since we first walked upright out of Olduvai Gorge some two million years ago, humans have relied on one another—as families, tribes, villages, civilizations. If one person made spears, another was free to gather berries, while another could care for the children. If someone got sick, others took care of her until she got well. If there was a battle with another clan over shrinking resources, everyone pitched in to fight.

Maslows Pyramid Peer Pressure

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

It takes a village to build Maslow’s Pyramid.

Unless, of course, you were ostracized—thrown out of the group for some reason.

Then, your odds of survival dropped to almost nil. Your chances of reproducing went even lower. Even if you were a strong, successful hunter, and a natural introvert, eventually you would probably get sick. Maybe eat the wrong berries. Be unable hunt. And die.

Belonging to your tribe really is everything, and your brain has evolved around that fact for millions of years. Your nervous system interprets exile as physical pain. Being ostracized is an emotional upheaval as psychologically devastating as divorce or the death of a family member. Your middle school drama wasn’t kid stuff, no matter what the grownups told you. It was a first reckoning with our greatest vulnerability as human beings.

Which brings us, of course, to marketing.

Peer Pressure: All Your Friends Are Doing It

This need to belong manifests in several behaviors—more than you’d realize or like to admit. It helps define your political leanings, fashion choices, musical preferences, and most importantly to the shareholders, what you buy.


Hot Topic Peer Pressure

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

You want to be an individual? A rebel? A loner? There’s a chain store for that.

You may truly believe that you’re immune to peer pressure, but there is almost certainly some aspect of your life where you are spending money on something you don’t need, because you do need to belong.

Even if you don’t believe it, the people behind the US$600 billion advertising industry do. Pay attention.

In traditional advertising, your need to belong is exploited with social stress. If you don’t buy deodorant (only invented in 1888, and not really popularized until the Roaring 1920s), you will become a social outcast! Then came the makeup, high heels, hairspray, and skirts that changed length every few years, long before the fabric wore out.

Tellingly, what began as an advertising trope soon became a real-world truth.

Fashion is fun, fashion is artistic—but fashion is also expensive. So are new iPhones, new cars, and other items you may be buying as much to increase your social standing as fill a genuine physical need.

As marketing became increasingly sophisticated, demographics were incorporated. This ancient science, dating back to classical Greece and China, was originally used to track medical, census, and academic data. As advertising came into its own, after WWI, the group dynamics of desire became profitable. And they were carefully tracked.

Cigarette advertisers were among the first to exploit demographics. By the late 1920s, tobacco companies realized that a social taboo against women smoking in public was costing them half of their potential market.

They hired the man now known as the “Father of Public Relations,” Edward Bernays, to help them overcome that taboo.

Click this video—Bernays knows how to tell a story.

A psychoanalyst told Bernays that women, most of whom had just earned the right to vote in US elections, saw smoking cigarettes as an act of rebellion against male oppression. So, he staged a dramatic public display during the 1929 Easter Day Parade in New York City.

Bernays contacted the press to tell them women suffragists would light up “torches of freedom” during the parade, to show they were equal to men. And on cue, they indeed lit their cigarettes, convincing a generation of women to equate equal rights with nicotine, causing millions of avoidable cancer deaths, and laying the groundwork for Virginia Slims’ 1970s campaign, “You’ve come a long way, baby.”

Cigarette advertisers ever since have used peer pressure to sell tobacco. The tagline “reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet” capitalized on the tendency for people to treat thin women more inclusively than their overweight peers. “Four out of five physicians prefer Camels” made use of both an appeal to authority and crowd psychology. Attractive celebrities were paid to smoke on stage and screen.

Rita Hayworth Peer Pressure

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The audience either wanted to be Rita Hayworth, or be with Rita Hayworth. Neither was ever going to happen. But anyone could slip down to the store for a sexy cigarette.

Today, our desire to belong to a group is the focus of enormous computer algorithms and an entire industry of targeted advertising. Conservatives and liberals famously Facebook within their respective digital bubbles. Your personal preferences—music, movies, styles, hobbies, vices—are culled from your credit card bills, Netflix accounts, and Google search history, then packaged and sold to advertisers who then know exactly what you want.

What you want, however, may not be what you think.

Mimetic Desire

The heart, as it turns out, does not want what it wants. It wants what it thinks others want.

The idea of mimetic desire was first outlined by René Girard, an academic oddball who began his career studying medieval France, and ended up writing 30 books in all sorts of social sciences. His 1961 release, Deceit, Desire and the Novel, outlined his most important realization: Humans do not wake up and suddenly want something of their own accord. We “borrow our desires from others.”

Our desires—for products, services, partners, almost anything—are provoked by the desire of another person, who he calls “the model,” for this same object. What we really want, however, is the model him or herself.

Most of us believe that our desires are entirely authentic, welling up from deep within us like a spring of pure, clear individuality. Girard knew better, as did the novelists he studied. He noted that each of them saw through those “individual” desires, and parsed them out with literate fluency into hubris, snobbery, manipulation, and other vain attempts to disguise the universal masochism of wanting the unattainable, and substituting something banal in its place.

This Carl’s Junior campaign may be a brilliant parody of those classic ads, but most of you will still want a burger after watching it. Because no matter how ironic the advertisement, you still can’t have, or be, the models.

“I’m not affected by commercials. I don’t even see them,” you tell your partner, as you sign for a car you don’t really need and certainly can’t afford. “This new style is so much more flattering than the jeans from last year,” you continue, replacing pants that still fit, were flattering last year, and still have plenty of wear in them.

And so it goes.

The Economy of Desire

It’s difficult to measure the effects of peer pressure, but social scientists keep trying. And according to preliminary data, it seems that seeing a stranger want something increases your likelihood of doing it by about a third.

For example, when someone seated in your airplane row makes a purchase, you are 30% more likely to do so than if you were sitting a row where no one bought anything. When psychologist Robert Cialdini, author of Influence: The Psychology of Persuation, asked hotel guests to reuse their towels “like most other clients,” compliance increased by around 33% over environmental appeals alone.

That’s powerful.

If you see someone you consider high-status, or desirable as a friend—say, a celebrity, or the character he or she portrays—want an object, you are even likelier to desire it as well. Authority figures, such as doctors or professors, are also more likely to convince you to do something you might not otherwise consider.

Sure, all of these people could have just donated the money, and not ended up cold and wet. But the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge added peer pressure to the mix and raised US$116 million in two weeks, making it the most successful charity campaign of all time.

The gold standard in peer pressure, however, is a real friend, someone you know personally. You can see hundreds of commercials and product placements for a particular make of automobile, and read glowing reviews of it in Consumer Reports. But if one friend had problems with that particular car, and complains about it frequently, you will almost certainly never purchase it.

Until very recently, word-of-mouth was a bugaboo in mass-market advertising campaigns. That’s changed.

User Testimonials and Targeted Reviews

Before Internet, television, and the written word (i.e., 99% of human development) there were two ways to learn something: Personal experience, and hearing about it from someone else.

As Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons point out in The Invisible Gorilla, “We naturally generalize from one example to the population as a whole, and our memories for such inferences are inherently sticky. Individual examples lodge in our minds, but statistics and averages do not.”

This is why your reviews on Yelp, TripAdvisor, Amazon, and Facebook are so important, and in many cases rewarded. When they can use your review to target your friends, those reviews tend to increase their desire for that product by around 100%. They may not actually click the purchase button, but hopefully that pang of want will stick in the backs of their minds.

Until the next time they see a targeted ad.

Peer Pressure also Works Business to Business

Peer Pressure Office Party

Ain’t no party like a Chainsaw party.

It’s not just advertising that uses peer pressure. It’s also B2B sales. One of the oldest and most reliable ways to close a sale is to let your potential client know that everybody wants you.

In the boardroom, you could amplify mimetic desire by name-dropping. For example, we might let you know that we’ve seen several other clients, some of whom you know personally or professionally, enjoy dramatic success (“a 40% increase!”) after taking a training course with us.

We’re telling the truth. The course would help your company. But most importantly, we’ve reminded you that Chainsaw Communications is in demand, and have already been hired by people you know. Our training courses are cool. They make you part of the in crowd. If you were cool, you’d want a training course, too.

Or, just go ahead and say no. You don’t want to come to our training course party. The 40% increase party, where your friends from that professional conference are all having fun. It’s your choice.

But, if you sign up for regular email updates, like so many of your friends and professional contacts, you’ll have another chance to belong to our fabulous group in the future. It’s win-win. 

I want to be cool too!