Extended Peer-group Influence on Behaviour

(This is a current extract from the Patterns of Power Repository.  An archived copy of this page is held at http://www.patternsofpower.org/edition02/4323.htm)

Peer group pressure is exerted between people who regard each other as equals within a circle of acquaintance.  People can influence each other within wider society, affecting acquaintances and even strangers:

·      Imitation can lead to new fashions and behavioural norms, as with the hippy phenomenon in the 1960s.[1]

·      People can show approval or disapproval of another’s behaviour by words, gestures and body language.  Merely speaking out against unacceptable behaviour can help: it can cause people to reconsider their behaviour.  Conversely, it is possible to argue that failure to speak out is a way of condoning the behaviour.  At the very least, speaking out has the effect of communicating its unacceptability (which may have been unintentional).

·      With improved communications, people can exert global influence – for example by blogs and through social networks.  Group identities can be forged and strengthened by using the Internet – as countless organisations solicit people to join them, to contribute money etc. 

As an example of peer-group influence across an entire society, moral pressure in Victorian England was exerted to such an extent that John Stuart Mill described its use as a threat to liberty.[2]  The impact of moral pressure can also be counter-productive, driving those who do not conform to the edges of society and making their behaviour less acceptable to other people.   

© PatternsofPower.org, 2014

[1] The hippies challenged many of the moral attitudes of their parents' generation, for example as described in an article entitled Hippies Life which was available at http://www.loti.com/hippies_life.htm in April 2014.

[2] John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, Chapter 1, p. 6:

“there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them”.

On Liberty was available in May 2014 at http://www.utilitarianism.com/ol/one.html