We face both positive and negative influences all throughout our lives, from many different sources. These influences affect how we develop, as well as how we behave.
Why are we influenced?
We can be influenced by others because we want to fit in, and to be accepted. Another word for this is conforming. When we conform, it helps us to live together in social groups.
Unanimity: We are more likely to conform when everybody else is in agreement, or ‘unanimous’. But if even one other person says that they have a different opinion, we find it easier to voice our own thoughts.
Normative influence: The desire to be liked, and to fit in. This may change our behaviour, but not our internal opinion. This can lead to compliance, where we do things we don’t really agree with. If we only cross the road at pedestrian crossings, but our group of friends want to cross at an unmarked corner, we may follow the group because ‘everyone is doing it’. However, this doesn’t change our own internal belief that using a pedestrian crossing is better and safer.
Informational influence: The desire to be right. When we are unsure about something, we look for clues on how to behave. This leads to internalisation, meaning that our internal opinion is now changed, as well as our behaviour. A good example of this is going to a restaurant, where we find a range of forks and knives beside the plate. Which one to use? Watching those around us may help us decide – and we now believe we know the ‘right’ way to use the cutlery.
What influences us?
We are influenced by people and attitudes around us, every day. Sometimes we are very aware of the influences we face, but they can also be much more subtle.
Peer group: As we grow older, our peer group of friends and associates become very important in our lives. We compare our own behaviour and values with those of the group, and must decide what to accept or reject. This is also called Peer Pressure. For example, if ‘all’ of my friends smoke, but I think it is bad for my health, what decision do I make?
Media: Not just advertisements, but also the content in TV programmes, books, and magazines, all give us impressions of how we ‘should’ think or behave. Advertisements directly try to persuade us to buy or use a product – and if they do a good job, we think our lives will be improved, or more fun, if we do what they suggest. However, every time we watch YouTube, or a TV programme, or read a book, we are also exposed to the opinions and values of whoever made, or wrote it.
Family and Culture: Our earliest influences come from our families. We learn how to interact with others when we are small children, and are influenced to be respectful and polite. We also learn how to conform for our own safety – for example, not to run onto the road, or to touch a hot stove. Our Cultural background may give us many gifts such as the concept of belonging to a large and inclusive extended family (Whanau), a religious community, or a highlighted respect for elders and ancestors.
Authority Figures: Obedience is another type of conformity. We do what authority figures say because we believe them to have power over us. We often believe that they are responsible and knowledgeable, and therefore that they know the correct thing to do in a given situation. For example, if a firefighter tells us to ‘Get out immediately!’, we assume that we are in danger, and we are highly likely to follow the advice.
What issues can social influences cause?
Unfortunately, we mostly notice the negative influences we face. The Media, in particular, can influence us in many ways:
Body Image – seeing idealised ‘perfect’ models in ads can influence how we feel
about ourselves in comparison
Food Intake – We may be persuaded to buy the products in Fast Food ads, despite
the fact that we know they are not the healthiest option for us
Racism or Sexism – If we regularly see certain groups of people being ignored or
treated differently in the media, those attitudes may start to seem ‘normal’,
whether or not we agree with this behaviour or participate in it ourselves.
Other negative influences can include situations we face in our Peer Groups, or even in our family. A recent anti-smoking TV ad depicts a young child wanting to smoke because he wanted to be ‘like his father’.
However, positive influences reinforce our sense of social connectedness and belonging. They can encourage us to participate in new things, such as sports or clubs, and to be open and honest. Some examples are:
Peer Group influence – to be welcoming to new people, or to study hard
Family influence – where good manners and consideration for others are expected
Teachers – who encourage and reward our best efforts, influencing us to try hard
Media – videos, TV programmes, books and articles can expose us to new opinions
and help us to understand the experiences of others, leading to greater tolerance
How can we know what to do?
With so many things influencing us every day, sometimes we can become unsure about the best way to act, this makes us feel pressured and unhappy. However, there are some things we can remember that will help us to continue to make good choices for ourselves.
When faced with decisions caused by pressure from negative influences, it is important to be able to rely on a strong sense of identity. Just as we need to have respect for others, we need to respect ourselves and our core values. We need to remember that we can ask trusted people, perhaps as a family member or teacher, for their opinion and advice.
Keeping an open mind and using our skills of empathy and respect for others will also help us to know the right thing to do.
We can also think about what we know about Peer Pressure, Resilience, Citizenship, and Teamwork and Leadership.
Re-reading Life Education Trust’s Useful Information Documents on these topics will provide further information on how to deal with the situation and challenges we may face.
The Oxford Dictionary ‘Definition: Influence’ n.d. Retrieved from http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/influence
28 January 2016
Simply Psychology ‘Social Influence Revision’, 2015. Retrieved from
28 January 2016
Psychology Today ‘You are a Conformist’ 5 December, 2010 Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/insight-therapy/201012/you-are-conformist-is-you-are-human
28 January 2016
With support from JSB Education
LET NZ 4 February 2016