The old maxim says that with others you should just “be yourself.”
But is that really true?
In researching my new book, Plays Well With Others, I went down the rabbit hole to see whether it’s accurate — and also what we can do to be our best selves. (Never be ashamed of who you are… that’s your parents’ job.)
In the excerpt below we’re going to learn a dead simple way to become more of the person you want to be.
This is part of the section I had to cut from the book. I wish I could have included it but my publisher had a strict word count limit. You’ll get the rest of it – 25% more book — if you preorder now. Only one week left to get the bonuses. Grab a copy at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Books A Million, Indiebound or Bookshop.
Okay, let’s get to it…
If you want to best predict how you will behave, personality traits alone won’t tell you. Introverts don’t always act introverted. But how people react to particular situations is very consistent. You might be very shy around strangers but you may be very talkative around close friends.
If you want to learn more about yourself, use the formula “I am… when…” and you’ll see much more reliable patterns. “I am always on time when it comes to my job” and “I am always a half hour late when I have to meet friends” will be more predictive than merely saying you’re “conscientious.”
It’s now widely accepted that when trying to predict behavior it’s usually more effective to look at someone’s surroundings than to ask what kind of person they are. Simply put, context matters. Man, does it ever. And the biggest factor in context is usually other people. For proof, look no further than teenagers. In case you are just visiting Earth, teens tend to do what other teens around them are doing and the science totally backs this up.
A survey of 75,000 college students showed that, on average, if you want to know how often a student drinks, just ask them how often they think their peers are drinking. (Oh, and be careful about correcting their beliefs with data because this will cause the ones who drink less than average to start drinking more, as researchers trying to reduce student drinking sadly found out.) What is the single best predictor of whether teens will like a song? Whether or not it’s already popular – even if that perception of popularity was totally rigged by the experimenters.
If you want to increase a student’s grades, just give them a roommate with a higher GPA. And for similar reasons, “Scared Straight” doesn’t work. Programs for at-risk teens fail miserably, averaging a 13% increase in crimes committed. Why? You just took a group of teens who break the law and put them together where they can more effectively influence one another. (And the biggest increase was seen among kids with no previous criminal record.) Meanwhile, “Big Brothers” and “Big Sisters” programs that pair troubled youth with good mentors are very effective. But “behavioral contagion” isn’t just true for young people, adults are influenced just the same…
What increases support for women’s rights around the world? That’s right: cable TV. Bring it to rural India and soon domestic violence and fertility both drop while female autonomy surges. Bring it to Brazil and separations and divorces spike – but only in regions where service was available. Why? Women see other female characters living lives where they have more control and go: Huh. I don’t have to put up with this anymore. I can be like her. And when the progressive Turkish soap opera “Noor” started being aired in Arab nations, the divorce rate in the UAE surged by 10%. (Oh, and there didn’t used to be any Dylans in France but by the mid-1990’s it was the sixth most common name for boys. “Beverly Hills 90210” had arrived.)
We’re all influenced by others, that’s obvious. But the degree to which others affect our behavior can be hard to accept – especially in very serious areas where we’d like to think we’re in charge.
Take your health, for example. The Framingham study showed that drinking, smoking and obesity are all quite contagious. If someone you consider a friend becomes obese, your likelihood of obesity increases by 53%. And if the friendship is mutual, the number rises to 171%. (This has nothing to do with genetics or like-hangs-out-with-like. When military families move to a new base with a higher obesity rate, their chance of gaining weight goes up.) And these behavioral contagion effects are seen three degrees out. To quote Christakis and Fowler, who analyzed the data from The Framingham study, “You may not know him personally, but your friend’s husband’s coworker can make you fat. And your sister’s friend’s boyfriend can make you thin.”
And it’s not just health, it’s also relationships. Divorce is contagious out to two degrees. (So your sister’s friend’s boyfriend can make you fat and your sister’s friend can end your marriage.) Did your sibling have a baby? That means you’re much more likely to have a kid in the next two years.
And let’s not forget about happiness. Christakis and Fowler found that happy friends make you 15% more likely to be happy. And, like obesity, this effect spans three degrees. Happy friends of friends increase your odds of smiling by 10% and friends of friends of friends still add 6% to your chances. (It’s worth nothing that an extra $12,000 a year in 2021 dollars only increases your chance of happiness by 2%.) With each friend boosting the likelihood of happiness by 9% and every unhappy friend reducing your odds by 7%, making friends is like card counting for happiness.
As Eric Hoffer once said, “When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other.” Sometimes it’s quite deliberate but more often it’s unconscious. We’re just wired for it. This is what it means when we say humans are a social species. This tendency toward imitation underlies empathy, morality, collaboration and group formation. We naturally mimic others and in research where confederates are told to deliberately not mimic study subjects, those subjects reported liking the confederates less – but they didn’t know why. New therapists frequently report feeling depressed after treating depressed patients. It’s human nature.
Of course, some people are more influential than others. No doubt, famous people have a disproportionate impact. That said, we’re far more influenced by those around us than by celebrities. And a University of Pennsylvania study found that once 25% of the members of a group adopt a new behavior, most everyone else quickly follows suit.
Please don’t tell me you think you’re an exception. If you think you are, answer this question for me: what does “rich” mean? What’s a “big” house? What’s a “nice” car? You cannot answer these questions without context. A “nice” car for you is probably not a nice car for Jeff Bezos. People like to say, “I don’t care what anyone thinks” but they do and it affects their behavior, even if they don’t realize it, because the vast majority of us follow norms the vast majority of the time and norms don’t come from thin air. Did you wear a dashiki today or a medieval suit of armor? No, you dressed pretty much like your friends. Just like you do every day.
It’s in our nature to want to feel accepted and get along with people. And communities are not formed by everyone being an utterly unique individual with nothing in common. In your average conversation, the cost of being wrong on the facts is often nothing but the costs of disagreeing with those around you can be enormous. Yes, consciously compromising yourself doesn’t feel good but so much of this happens beneath awareness, at the emotional level. A 2016 study in Neuroscience and Behavioral Reviews looked at neuroimaging data and found disagreeing with others can actually trigger “error” signals in your brain and cause aversive feelings.
As UVA professor Timothy Wilson reports, people often think they’re choosing original names for their baby and yet, inevitably, there are huge trends in the aggregate. As a psychologist, Wilson knows how susceptible other people are to these unconscious influences… And then he and his wife did the exact same thing when they named their son Christopher. They chose the name because they “liked it” — and it turned out to be the single most popular name for boys that year. None of us are immune.
Sounds like we’re all just caving to “peer pressure.” And everything we hear growing up is that peer pressure is evil. But that’s largely a myth. The majority of the time peer pressure is quite good, if not utterly essential. Yes, it can lead us to bad behavior but it’s those same pressures that lead to the majority of our good behavior, including empathy. Joseph Allen of UVA followed kids for over a decade and found the ones most exposed to peer pressure around age 13 actually became better kids. They had better relationships across the board. They were more likely to go to college. The same sensitivity to the opinions of others that can lead a kid to break the law is the same thing that makes them empathetic and to get A’s to please their parents. Paying attention to others and being accommodating is more often good than bad. And what about the children that were immune to peer pressure? Their GPA was nearly a full grade lower. And their relationships suffered. They weren’t iconoclastic ubermenschen rising above the crowd; they were just disengaged and detached. This is the real result of what happens when you don’t care what anyone thinks.
Peer pressure isn’t good or bad – your peers are. If you moved your troubled teen to a new high school filled with well-behaved students, would you be hoping your child was immune to peer pressure — or very susceptible? We learn some of our best qualities by being open to the praise or criticism of those around us. Yes, people often say that they got into drugs because they “hung out with the wrong people” but how do they get out of it? Often with an AA-style group that surrounds them with the right people. Face it, you don’t obey most laws and norms every day because you’re constantly rationally calculating the trade-offs or because you’re a perfect, wonderful being of pure light. The majority of what you do is because of habits and peer pressure – not wanting to be seen as a weirdo by your peers. And before you say I sound cynical, might I add, that handling things that way usually makes perfect sense.
Peruse the average YouTube comments section and you may not think humans are all that smart, but we instinctively know that other people usually try to do what’s good for them and avoid what’s bad for them. We also know that as an individual we can’t possibly judge the optimal next move we should make 1000 times a day. So we delegate a lot of the decision-making to the group. It’s the unconscious equivalent of checking movie reviews. And work economist Abhijit Banerjee shows when we’re lacking info to make good decisions, imitating those around us is a very rational strategy.
Of course, companies now leverage our natural tendency to conform to peer pressure. Ever get that letter from the electric company informing you that your neighbors are using less electricity than you do? Those letters work. Households who received them subsequently reduced their energy usage by an average 6.3%. Nobody wants to feel manipulated but there’s a powerful lesson here…
What if you did this on your own, for yourself, in service of your goals? What if we need more peer pressure, not less? Improving yourself is hard. So instead of asking for a new brain for Christmas, it might be smarter to change your context than to directly try and change yourself. They say you are “known by the company you keep” but it’s more like you become the company you keep. We’re going to be influenced by others, so what if we deliberately choose who and how? I call it “Strategic Peer Pressure.”
Mom always said don’t hang out with bad kids, and that’s a great first step. But what if we take it further and spend more time with the people we want to be like? The people who bring out the best in you?
And this isn’t just speculation. Want to be healthier? “The Longevity Project”, which studied over 1000 people from youth to death, came to the conclusion that: “The groups you associate with often determine the type of person you become. For people who want improved health, association with other healthy people is usually the strongest and most direct path of change.” And this isn’t just true for health, it’s true for most any goal. A 1994 Harvard study titled, “Personal Accounts of Successful Versus Failed Attempts at Life Change” concluded that “…social support was strongly associated with successful change.”
We’re never utterly autonomous. We’re social creatures. Why not leverage our fundamental nature rather than (often futilely) resisting it? Sometimes we’re weak on our own but groups are strong. We need others to help us do the right thing, even with individual goals. The logical conclusion is to be a part of a group where your desired reputation aligns with who you want to be as a person.
Surround yourself with people you admire and striving to be liked becomes a more elegant striving to be a better you. Frankly, it’s also easier. Since so much of peer pressure is unconscious, you’re going with the grain. Reading this book and trying to use what you learn on your own is good. Spending more time with others who are trying to use it is more effective, and easier.
Internalizing the lesson of strategic peer pressure can also make you a more compassionate person. “Pull yourself up by the bootstraps” personal improvement can lead to an attitude that tells others, “I did it on my own so you need to toughen up and get your act together.” But realizing that personal change comes from social change, that we are irresistibly influenced by our environment doesn’t imply superiority. We got where we are through others. And so maybe they just need help too. Your help.
It’s the flip side to strategic peer pressure. Others influence you but you also influence others. I call this part “scientific karma.” No magic. No woo-woo. But understanding the science of behavioral contagion means we know that it is a circle where others influence us and we influence others. And now that you know how the context others provide powerfully changes who you are, you know that you are part of that context for other people. With great power comes great responsibility, Spider-Man.
If your good friend becomes obese, you have a 171% greater chance of becoming obese. But that also means if you become obese, your good friend has a 171% chance of becoming obese. It goes both ways. We’ve increasingly restricted smoking because secondhand smoke might hurt your health. That’s true but, when you run the numbers, it’s actually not the strongest case against smoking. Carcinogenic particles you put into the air aren’t nearly as bad for me as the fact that seeing you smoke may influence me to take up smoking. That’s far more dangerous to me. And those particles don’t affect my friends and family. But if you influence me to start smoking, my loved ones have one more smoker in their network, influencing them to smoke. That’s bad scientific karma. It spreads.
And when you use strategic peer pressure and increase your time with those you want to be like, you must still make an effort to make good choices. Because you’re now part of that network. Your bad behavior can influence others and reduce the overall good of the group — which will eventually circle back and reduce its positive effect on you. That same study which showed divorce was contagious said, “the results suggest that attending to the health of one’s friends’ marriages serves to support and enhance the durability of one’s own relationship.” Karma, karma, karma. Don’t just join a good group, be a good contributor in that group to foster its power, for yourself and others.
As Abraham Kaplan wrote, “We need each other to become ourselves.”
And this is just a fraction of the bonus chapter. The full section has insights on how to get to know yourself better, how to be the best you imaginable, and a deep look into the crazy neuroscience of your personality — and why it is the way it is.