Years ago I taught a seminary class filled with some of the best and most successful students in the school. And because of who they were, they had a great influence in the lives of others. They were looked up to and admired by the other students. Sometimes, even without knowing it, they could create a social pressure among the other students in the school. The effect of this peer pressure—this attitude of one’s age group—was demonstrated to us one day in class. We all learned a sorry lesson that almost any of us can bend to peer pressure. Here’s how it happened.
I had read a magazine article on negative peer pressure. The article described an experiment I was tempted to try on my class of students. The experiment was designed to show, in a very convincing way, how powerful peer pressure can be. It didn’t really occur to me that the experiment might have some negative consequences.
In class the next morning I did as instructed in the experiment. On the chalkboard I drew a star, a circle, an oval, and a square. I told my class that for the class period, the objects on the board were to be identified as a star, a circle, an oval, and a triangle, even though the square was obviously a square. It was now to be called a triangle and nothing else! In a moment they would have an opportunity to convince an unsuspecting visitor that the square was actually a triangle.
Five of my most influential students were invited to sit on chairs at the front of the class. We had a football player, a young lady very involved in various school activities, the school student president, a top scholar, and a young man successful in everything he attempted. A sixth chair was left vacant for our visitor, a freshman, a student in his first year, who immediately recognized that he was among the “best” of the high school. My class students made him welcome, and he began to relax and enjoy himself in their company.
I invited him to take the vacant seat in front of the class. I explained that when it came his turn, he was to simply identify the objects drawn on the board. He agreed. The others smiled. The lesson began.
“Mr. Footballer, will you identify the objects on the board?” I asked.
In a deep, manly voice he said, “Star, circle, oval,” and then, coming to the square, he confidently said, “Triangle.”
Our visitor, forgetting himself, let out a laugh, but the rest of the people in the room were absolutely silent. He quickly searched the faces of those present for acknowledgement of Mr. Footballer’s obvious mental fumble, but my students were playing their parts. To them that square was nothing more than a triangle. Mr. Freshman had a bewildered expression.
I then turned to the young lady.
“Would you please identify the objects on the board?”
She enthusiastically replied, “Star, circle, oval, triangle.”
The freshman fidgeted in his seat.
The class remained silent. Twice more the question was asked. The student president and the successful young man answered as we had planned.
By now our visitor looked slightly ill and had that “may-I-please-be-dismissed” expression on his face.
The scholar responded to my question, “Star, circle, oval, triangle.”
Now it was the freshman’s turn. With each object his voice grew weaker, shakier, and less confident.
“Star … circle … oval …” Then silence.
We looked at him. He looked at us.
“What’s the last object?” I asked.
“Come on, what is it?”
Then finally, quietly he spoke.
I thought we’d all break the tenseness of the moment with a good laugh. The experiment had worked. But instead there was silence.
I searched the students’ faces. They were all deep in thought. Some heads were bowed.
Then I realized something. Each one in the class knew how the embarrassed freshman felt. Each in a foolish moment, wanting so badly to be accepted or to be part of a group, had in his own way called a square a triangle, had committed a wrong when there should only have been a right. Even I could add my name to the list. And we all realized, especially me, that we had been unkind to put the freshman in such an awkward situation.
We spent the remainder of our class time sharing feelings and regrets, but more importantly sharing desires, hopes, and longings to be more courageous. Mr. Footballer put his arm around the freshman, and we all reassured him that we’d made the mistake of giving in to pressure before, too. By the end of the class he was accepted by his peers—not because he’d given in, but because we’d all come to see the importance of never surrendering, of calling a square a square despite the consequences.
When the bell rang, we left as a group, wiser, more hopeful, and with a greater resolve to stand for that which is right even though we were subject to the pressures of the world.