The Power of Peer Pressure

The other day at Mass a woman in the front pew stood at the wrong time. The two women next to her joined her. Soon everyone in the church was standing. I stood too, even though I knew it was a mistake! I could hear my mother’s words echoing in my head, “If everyone jumps in Lake Erie, are you going to jump too?” We humans are so closely bound that we exert a powerful influence on one another. If a group of people are standing together and one person folds his or her arms, soon the others do too. Our emotions are also contagious. Someone in a good mood puts others in a good mood. Likewise a gloomy person soon soon has others downcast. There must be some stray lemming cells in us!

Peer pressure works both ways: for good and for ill. All it takes is one person to begin. Take for instance a crowd that gathers to rescue someone who is in a burning car or drowning. A brave soul charges in and then others follow. Then there are positive movements like marathons that are run for a good cause, fan support for a home team, and the gathering in Washington to promote civil rights. A kind of electricity runs through the group, charging it. On the other hand, look how quickly a mob is formed and can wreak havoc, even though the individuals may be good people at heart.

As Christians, we are called to be countercultural in some ways. Where the predominant trend in the American culture is to focus on sex and possessions, we need to be strong to resist. It’s all too easy to follow the crowd as if hypnotized. I wonder how much that one person Pope Francis will do in drawing people to be better followers of the poor and loving Christ.

Can you think of an example from your own life of someone who started a movement that “pressured” others to do good?

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