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How Being a Follower Can Help You Succeed

By Anna B. Wroblewska - Jan 4, 2015 at 8:34AM

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We know that the people around us can affect our behavior. But how important are they?

Have you ever heard the theory that you're the average of the five people you spend the most time with?

It's a concept that implicitly makes sense: We tend to hang out with people who are similar to us, at least on some level, and we also know that we're influenced by the people around us. 

But how influential are the norms of the people around us on our behavior? A simple study carried out on unsuspecting high school students shows just how dramatic social pressure can be. 

To SAT or not to SAT? 
The researchers offered students at a Los Angeles high school complimentary access to an online SAT prep course from a well-known company. All the students had to do was sign up during class -- with one caveat. 

Either their decision to sign up would be kept private from other students in the class, or it would be made public. 

As anyone who remembers high school will find unsurprising, students in honors courses weren't affected by the public/private disclosure, but students in non-honors classes were. In fact, the non-honors students were 11% less likely to sign up when the decision would be shared with their classmates. 

Where it got really interesting was with the large number of students who took both honors and non-honors courses throughout the day. 

Those students were 25% less likely to sign up in their non-honors class if the decision was public, but 25% more likely to sign up during an honors class if their name was shared. 

What does this mean? 
While social pressure in high school dwarfs anything we see at pretty much any other time of our lives, the point is broadly applicable. What we decide to do at a given moment depends -- at least to some extent -- on the people around us and the reactions we anticipate from them. 

It's a tough assertion to justify empirically; most peer pressure studies are done on students because, for one thing, it's a lot easier to control their environments. But I'd argue that we adults are basically just grown-up students. Maybe we don't feel social pressure in quite the same way, but I think we can agree that our colleagues and peers affect us to a great degree. Otherwise, the office bully would never be paid any mind and no one would ever be considered the widely liked, popular one.  

So, to give this twist on peer pressure a try, start paying more attention to the people around you. Be a follower of the right kind of people. Do you want to start a business? Maybe you should start hanging out with entrepreneurs. Stop drinking at parties? Get some friends who prefer sobriety. 

It could work for becoming an executive, a PhD, a comic book illustrator, or a consultant. Spend time around people who are doing the kinds of things you're trying to do, or striving to be the kind of person you also want to be, and you'll find yourself influenced to make decisions more in line with these goals.

It won't change who you are, but it might change the way you view your decisions. Hanging out with a lot of exercisers might make you less willing to skip the gym, just like hanging out with entrepreneurs could make you less lazy about investing some time in that business idea of yours. 

In the end, we're all still in a classroom surrounded by peers, and the beauty of adulthood is that you can decide whether it's an honors course or not. Just find yourself some classmates, and reap the benefits of peer pressure for the long run.

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