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Peer Pressure Influences Behaviour Like Nothing Else – Here’s How Group Psychology Will Help You Control It

A basic grasp of group psychology can help you turn this to your advantage

Teachwire
by Teachwire
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PrimarySecondary

Humans are social animals. Cooperation with others is one of the keys to our survival and dominance as a species. It makes sense that in order to get on with others we’ve evolved a complex range of strategies for maintaining our membership and status within social groups.

Different groups behave differently, but all groups conform to some fairly predictable rules about how to behave. These ‘social norms’ can be explicit rules or unspoken arrangements, but everyone within the group understands the consequences of not conforming to the norm.

Unspoken expectations

Schools, like any other cultural institution, have social norms. There will be formal rules about how students should behave, but students will also be aware of the unspoken rules, many are based on the unspoken expectations of the teachers and students who make up the school. Powerful as the culture of a school can be, it pales into insignificance next to the influence of peer groups.

Children are primarily socialised through their peer groups. Group socialisation theory predicts that the most important variable for determining children’s educational success is the peer culture at their school. Parents’ values are handed down to children whilst they’re at home and continue to hold sway as long as these are values shared by a critical mass of the child’s peer group. But, if a student with a different background attends the school, they will take on the values shared by their peers and abandon those of their parents. They’ll start to speak differently – at least whilst at school – and they’re likely to take on the group’s beliefs about how to behave at school.

Values and stereotypes

We all want at least three things: to fit in, not to make a fool of ourselves, and to improve our standing amongst our peers. The trouble is, fitting in with our peers and gaining the approval of our group can often be at odds with the norms of a school.

We all know that students can ‘get in with the wrong crowd’. Values and stereotypes can have a lasting influence on group members. If the group values hard work then it becomes important to identify as a hard worker. If our group values mucking about and being defiant, then that’s how we’re likely to identify.

When we find ourselves in situations where we’re torn between two sets of values, we experience ‘stereotype threat‘. All researchers had to do to make female, or African-American students perform worse on a test was to give them a pre-test questionnaire, which included a question about race or gender. Simply being reminded of our group affiliations is enough to trigger the associated stereotypes about who we’re supposed to be.


Shape the ingroup

If you want classes to be successful you need to address the peer culture. Here are three ways you can shape it:

  1. By defining group norms. You don’t have to influence every member of a group, you just need to nudge enough of the most influential members. This then generates a kind of ‘herd immunity’ against poor choices and bad behaviour.
  2. By defining the boundaries of the group. We can, to a greater or lesser extent, control who is in and who is out, who is us and who is them. Of course it’s possible for subcultures to form within classes and schools but by engendering strong social norms we can make belonging to the in-group both inclusive and desirable.
  3. By defining the image or the stereotype students have of themselves. If we encourage students to value hard work and disciplined behaviour in each other, then we will have done our job; they will police the social norms themselves.

This is how successful schools operate. They create an ingroup where ‘we’ are different to everyone out there. ‘We’ feel privileged to be in the ingroup and appalled at the idea of what it must be like to be a member of the outgroup. ‘We’ notice everything that makes us different from ‘them’ and we revel in the differences.


David Didau blogs at learningspy.co.uk and is the author of several books, including What If Everything you Know About Education Is Wrong?; you can follow him at @LearningSpy

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