Croskey’s Corner: Decisiveness

by | Feb 24, 2021 | Croskey's Corner | 1 comment

(originally published in 2018)

I’m reminded of a family dinner held in a restaurant a few years back. My nephew declared that he wanted to wait until everyone else had ordered because he did not want to order an entree that someone else had already chosen. He said that defeated the purpose of going out to eat. It got me thinking about peer pressure and some research I had seen.

Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist, along with Jonathan Levav, did an interesting piece of research on the influence of peer pressure on how patrons order in a bar or restaurant.  To test for the influence of peer pressure, “group context,“ on individual decisions in a natural setting, they collected lunch order slips from a popular Chinese restaurant in Durham, North Carolina. Lunch orders were of uniform size and price, and, unlike the usual custom in Chinese restaurants, were served as individual portions and not shared. They found that when the diners were asked to order “privately” (on paper), they selected different food items than when they ordered in front of other diners, their peers. The group context had a strong and significant influence on individual decision-making and how varied their choices were. And peers influenced their satisfaction with their choice. This also showed up in studies they did with beer and wine. (What do you mean, “Where do I sign up?”) Of course, what was being chosen was impacted by the food item, taste, diner’s previous experience, and other factors. But the take away from it, for Ariely and his colleagues, is that we are influenced in our choices by the peer group we belong to. This is probably not news, but it is reassuring to have some proof.

I think about peer pressure with movies. When I was young, I went to the movies almost weekly. Of course, this is before DVDs, or Movies on Demand, or Hulu. But, then as now, I was exposed to many more films through film reviews than I actually watched. Most of the films I saw were in a theater with others watching. Their laughter, or groans, or getting up and walking out influenced me, no doubt. But today, while I still read about a lot of movie reviews, I mostly watch them at home, on TV. The peer influence, except from reviews, is drastically reduced. This may not be true for you, but, in general, more people view movies outside of a theater than inside it. How, I wonder, has viewing movies alone changed our opinions of movies generally?

You might be saying, “These are trivial areas of peer influence compared to the big crises of life.” You are correct. What effect do peer pressure and social context have on promoting or decreasing bullying in schools? How do our siblings’ opinions affect how we treat an ailing parent? What is our level of interaction with a colleague who has gotten into some public mess? How do we interact with defiant children, especially when others are around? We do very little – we make very few decisions – in private. Most of what we decide to do is in the public eye, at least partially.

There is a great “laboratory” for observing peer pressure these days. It combines the triviality of television with the momentous issues of our lives. It is called Reality TV. My family members have found their individual favorites among the many offerings. If you are a seasoned educator like I am, you may remember the 1970’s when Public Broadcasting placed cameras in the Loud Family’s house and showed America the edited results. The family ended up dealing with divorce, drug abuse, death. There was a public hue and cry about how the process of observing (cameras rolling) influenced the outcomes. Of course, we’ve seen how this phenomenon has exploded. One can watch the daily family interactions of little people, pawnshop owners, motorcycle builders, celebrities, and people who become celebrities through having their daily family interactions being shown to the nation. How does one “get over” knowing that they are having an intimate discussion that will not remain private? Or take the Bachelor or Bachelorette. Dating and “courtship” are complicated enough. But how could I not be influenced in what I said and did with my partner, knowing my manhood, my manners, my level of commitment were all being judged by millions of people – some of whom would be glad to approach me in a public place and throw my choices in my face!?

Can we avoid being influenced by peers? I am pretty sure we are not even fully aware when we are, so I doubt we could eliminate this, even if we wanted to. But, maybe we CAN increase our awareness. This month we are focusing on the Character Quality of Decisiveness, defined as “processing information and finalizing difficult decisions.” The I wills remind us to reflect on the influence of peer pressure when we make important decisions. But we are also reminded to look at things from more than one point of view before making up our minds. So, fight peer pressure but consider the opinions of others, right?

You have probably heard this definition of Character: It’s what you do when no one is looking. From that, one would think that the presence of peers encourages us to show more good Character. But maybe the opposite is also true: sometimes human beings drop to the lowest level of behavior, mob rule even, when in the presence of others. We may therefore think that we cannot show good Character once our peers step in. I wonder if they ever step out. Trying to live a life of Character requires us to regularly ask ourselves what the Right thing to do is. Of course, that forces us to reflect on the choices. I maintain that, most often, deep down, we already know what the right thing to do is. But, we hesitate due to pressures. Maybe a wise course would be to use the opinions of others to play down our egocentrism, to free us from being a prisoner of our own point of view. But after visiting with others’ views, we probably ought to come back home to our consciences, and armed with the needs of others and ourselves, choose what we know is right.

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