Through books and movies we constantly witness others people’s difficulties with sticking to their morals and beliefs under social pressures. Yet the whole time we’re thinking: If it was me in that situation I would act differently! I wouldn’t succumb to peer pressure! I would stand up for what’s right! But is that really true?
I had been previously warned countless times about peer pressure, and thought that I fully understood how it works and how to conquer it, when I tried my first cigarette. I didn’t even realise what had happened until afterwards. They were all smoking and having fun and I wanted to join in. My construal of the social situation led me to the decision that in order to fit in and have fun, i would be required to conform by smoking. I regretted it of course, and promised myself that never again would I allow the various social pressures to alter my judgments and actions. Needless to say, that was not the last time being in a particular social situation led to my doing something I wouldn’t normally do. But why is it easy to say you would never do something, but once you’re placed in the situation you end up doing it? Firstly, situational factors are a lot stronger than people are led to believe, which means it is extremely easy for anyone to completely change just because they are placed in a certain situation. Secondly, humans need to maintain their self-esteem and feel good about themselves. So when you are not being subjected to any social pressures, it is easy to expect the best of yourself and make positive internal attributions in order to increase your self-esteem. I maintained my self-esteem following this situation by justifying my smoking as a one time thing, and convincing myself that the next time, my disposition will conquer the situation.
As humans, we like to think that we are completely in control of our actions and behaviour at all times. We like to think that the world is black and white; that there are people who are good and people who are bad. That however, is untrue. We fail to take into consideration the situational factors and undermine their power over us. This phenomenon is known as the fundamental attribution error. So, for example, in Zimbardo’s prison experiment, when perfectly normal people were put in the situation of having power, they ended up inflicting pain upon their colleagues, showing that good people can do bad things when placed in different situations.