Behavioral Psychology

Peer Pressure And Low Self-Esteem

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The lower the self-esteem the higher the susceptibility to peer pressure. This is because when self-esteem is low there’s a strongly felt need, though often barely conscious or even unconscious, to receive validation and to avoid ridicule from external sources, specifically authority figures and peers. The validation is meant to fill up the psychic space where self-esteem is supposed to be. And since that space is currently empty the thought of ridicule is terrifying. When you don’t believe yourself to be fundamentally good or worthy you become much more susceptible, much more dependent on the assurances of others that you are indeed good and worthy. You become fearful of hearing any opinions to the contrary since these opinions would seem to confirm what you already believe about yourself deep down yet wish with all your heart you didn’t believe about yourself.

Of course validation is a sought after entity for everybody, not just for those with low self-esteem. It’s positively reinforcing to hear we’re doing a good job, that we have desirable attributes, that we say and do things worthy of the esteem. But we can think of peer pressure as a negative reinforcer, not a positive reinforcer. People tend to go along with peer pressure, even when the behavior they’re being pressured into is clearly not in their best interests, because they believe doing so will help them avoid the felt aversive stimuli of peers withdrawing their validation, or worse, replacing it with ridicule.

Saying no to peer pressure might result in ridicule and it might not. Actually it’s more likely to result in grudging respect. But the point we’re trying to make here is that those who already have high self-esteem feel more equipped to take the risk. The thought of the withdrawal of approval or even outright ridicule is much less negatively reinforcing to those with high self-esteem than to those with low self-esteem. Those with low self-esteem are extremely sensitive to the external stimuli of approval and ridicule due to the lack of inner confidence.

How do people with low self-esteem break free of the above behavioral conditioning that often makes them act against their own best interests? It can start with the insight that the peers doing the pressuring are manipulators, whether they know it or not. For them it’s not about respect or lack of respect, it’s not about esteem or lack of esteem, it’s about utilizing painful negative reinforcements to get vulnerable people to do their bidding. And this should make those with self-esteem mad. So mad in fact that it becomes more negatively reinforcing to go along with the program than to be ridiculed for not going along with the program.