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Is Peer Pressure a Good Thing?

Find out how keeping up with the Joneses can help (and hurt) you.

September 13th, 2011

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Is Peer Pressure a Good Thing?

It’s not your fault that you can’t resist lusting after this season’s most buzzed about “it” bag. A new study says that baby, you were born this way.

A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences revealed how we’re strongly influenced by social environments and the ways in which we alter our behavior to fit in and elevate our ranking within the group. (This is most obvious when it comes to sexual competition, where the incentive to be perceived as the alpha male results in—ding, ding, ding!—winning a mate.)

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In the study, the researchers found that people were more likely to take risks and engage in competitive behavior when all of their friends were watching rather than when they were flying solo.

So we wondered, does this apply to fashion and beauty risks as well? Pressure to look a certain way and compare yourself to others is certainly a result of this biological behavior, according to Giorgio Coricelli, Ph.D., one of the study’s researchers and an assistant professor of neuroeconomics at the University of Southern California. And that's not necessarily such a bad thing—if you're aware of it, at least.

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"Upward comparisons are motivated by self-improvement [improving one’s own abilities], which aims at enhancing social status, while the opportunity to compare with a less fortunate other enhances subjective well-being," explains Coricelli. "From the 'Social Comparison Theory,' we derive the insight that individuals use the comparison with others to evaluate their own opinion and abilities. Hence, individuals have an incentive to gather and process this information."

But going on a comparison quest can backfire when the superficial stakes are raised, such as when a person is conveying their status through, say, a boob job or a Louis Vuitton bag, which as Coricelli points out, is costly and therefore not easily mimicked.

In other words, comparing yourself to the Joneses can be positive if it results in self-improvement, but it’s not so productive if it simply makes you feel like a chump. But hey, just being armed with the knowledge that you're hardwired to think along these lines (if it stops you from breaking the bank on an expensive designer bag just to keep up) is a good start.

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