People rarely, if ever, behave independently from other people. Even when they are acting without other people physically present, their decision-making is influenced by their enculturation, which could involve traditions from their ethnic heritage, religion, social norms, among other things. These people systems have a nice analog in physics.
Physics classes teach students to use free body diagrams to analyze the forces acting on objects. A very rudimentary, simplistic model of how you and the Earth interact looks like this:
In this model, we see gravity acting on both you and the Earth. Similarly, there are also normal forces that results in a net force of 0, so there is no net force and you end up standing still. Simple, no big deal. In much the same way, we can also draw social free body diagrams to represent the forces acting on people within an interpersonal system. When you arrive at a social gathering, the interactions at play might look like this:
In this model, you experience some degree of wanting to socialize because humans are social animals. At the same time, there is also the “force” caused by an overarching anxiety that resists the desire to socialize. Perhaps you’re afraid of embarrassing yourself, or perhaps you don’t know anybody there, or perhaps they all have intimidatingly, captivatingly authentic British accents. Who knows? At any rate, when this resistive force is equal to the desire to socialize, you end up paralyzed with indecision. Do you approach the cheerful crowd? Do you turn tail and run? You are not compelled to do either.
Meanwhile, the group itself might recognize that you just walked through the door and also instinctively want to socialize. However, there is also a resistive force preventing the group from interacting with you. I labeled this the “clique” force, which is the desire to maintain the status quo. It is unclear whether or not including you into the group will improve or reduce the pleasure they are deriving from each other’s company.
As you can see in the diagram above, multiple individuals can comprise a single social entity. Just as physical objects’ mass are actually comprised of individual atoms’ masses, so are greater social entities comprised of the social mass of individual people. And, just as it takes greater force to achieve the same acceleration of a more massive physical object, so does it take more social force to achieve the same social acceleration for an entity that has greater social mass. Social acceleration, thus, is the behavior change that happens when social forces are not at equilibrium. We interact with large social entities all the time:
Certainly, by virtue of being a Seattleite, I play a small part in defining what it means to be a Seattleite, thereby applying a social force on all Seattleites. But really, my experience of the world is shaped strongly by (i.e. socially accelerates towards) what it means to be a Seattleite far more that Seattle culture becomes Larry-esque since Seattleites as an entity is much more social massive.
To further illustrate the idea of examining people systems in this way, imagine that you are actually Abraham Lincoln:
I can’t say I know Abe personally, but I imagine he is quite adept at navigating interpersonal interactions, so he doesn’t experience a lot of the resistive social forces from the likes of anxiety. However, he is also a busy fellow, and all his responsibilities keep him from interacting with arbitrary groups of people. In the diagram, these both counteract the human desire to socialize.
Crucially, Abe is a very socially massive entity. He has a hell of a lot of clout. If I were chatting with some friends in a room and Abe walked in the door, I would certainly drop everything to schmooze with him, much more than the other way around. I would love Abe to talk to my friends and I, so there is a low clique force preventing us from deviating from the status quo, and the socializing force between my friends and Abe leads to far greater social acceleration for my friends. Abe doesn’t even really have to do anything and we will come to him.
The Basis of Peer Pressure
In any system of people, there are cyclical patterns of behavior. The recursive reinforcement of behaviors among multiple people is a phenomenon called complementarity. As individual people gain clarity on what behavior is more comfortable in a given relationship, the behaviors eventually converge to a homeostatic equilibrium. Homeostatic equilibrium is the default dynamic between any number of people based on the relationships they have with each other, their personalities, etc. Equilibrium can be examined on literally any interpersonal behaviors: gregariousness, delegation of responsibility, expression of affection, you name it. It is the crux of (often subconscious) compromise and expectation.
To give a somewhat silly but hopefully relatable example, consider the task of killing or removing spiders. In my experience, each household I know has a designated spider killer/remover(s). This person tends to be the person who is least afraid of spiders. For simplicity’s sake, let’s just look at 2-person households:
In this household, neither person is deathly afraid of spiders. However, Orange is like a spider researcher or something, so he loves spiders and not only doesn’t mind but actually finds it fulfilling to catch them and let them go outside. It’s not that Blue is incapable of doing the same, there’s just no need to. Over time, they reach an equilibrium where Blue is allowed to selfishly defer to someone else to handle all spiders because Orange is more than willing to. The complementarity at play can be seen in this social free body diagram:
The reinforcement cycle converges upon a sustainable long-term dynamic where the less arachnophobic individual becomes the spider remover. They’ve successfully negotiated a compromise between their personal feelings towards spiders and the exigencies presented by a spider actually appearing. That convergence is precisely the homeostatic equilibrium, and it totally works for their relationship.
What about this other household?
In this household, Blue, who objectively has the same fear of spiders as Blue from Household 1, is actually the spider remover. This is because Green is even more afraid of spiders. The equilibrium that Blue and Green has reached is one where Blue actually handles the spiders. This could be an outcome of the admiration that Green expresses for Blue when Blue takes care of the spiders, which reinforces the spider removal behavior (the Hero Syndrome). It could be an outcome of Blue not being able to sleep easy if the spider isn’t taken care of, but there’s no one else who will remove the spider, so he has no choice but to selflessly handle the spiders with trembling hands and sweaty palms.
Clearly, despite indistinguishable individual characteristics of Blue in Household 1 and Household 2, the equilibrium reached entails very different behaviors for Blue, but again it totally works for them!
The bottom line is this: optimal behavior is context-specific. Complementarity is the fundamental process at play in peer pressure, or in teaching, or any other form of behavior alteration. You will only get so much mileage looking at the target individual alone if you don’t address the way that the people around them inform their decisions. Of course, willingness to remove the spider is interchangeable with more significant behaviors that are at the core of people’s identity. This could include religion, choice of area of study in college, career path, among other things.
How to “Be Yourself”
I believe that each person has some sort of “true self” where there is some set of philosophies, patterns of behavior, passions, and worldview that is entirely consistent with the personality that someone is born with, and then continually shaped by the social forces they experience. The unfortunate reality is that actually behaving consistent with that true self is often unfeasible due to various constraints. For instance, I love singing, but let’s face it. I can’t feed myself off album sales only to my mother. I’m not good enough at singing to make a career out of it. So, on the dimension of singing, this is what my homeostatic equilibrium looks like:
I want to sing as much as I can, but I also need to face the realities of financial security. My personal compromise is to pursue singing as a hobby. If I pursued singing full-time, I’d probably end up going hungry. Meanwhile, if I cut singing out of my life altogether, I could conceivably work overtime at my jobs, but that results in excess income I don’t need to sustain myself, and I’d be better off improving my emotional well-being by dedicating time doing an activity I enjoy.
Given the various pragmatic constraints in our lives, the best we can do is to find the behavior that is a homeostatic equilibrium of our true self along with all external factors. An individual’s actual behavior is determined by constant negotiation of complementary dynamics in every system that they are in, across infinitely many dimensions. Thus, identifying the best set of behaviors is really a gigantic force-directed layout problem of all people across dimensions representing all possible moral values, behaviors, etc. It is the superposition of many scales similar to the socializing scale, the spider removal scale, or the singing scale in an effort to find a position where the net force is 0. Holistically, a 2D representation of all the forces might look something like this, where your behavior is the sum of all the sources of enculturation you’ve undergone over the course of your life:
Ultimately, behavior and identity are usually not one and the same. “Being yourself” is the ideal state where the social entropy leads you to a behavior that perfectly overlaps with your true self, where everything you want to do because it’s “you” happens to be what the people around you value highly. Unfortunately, more likely than not that’s not possible, and you won’t have that perfect overlap. Instead, the best we can do is to always aim to reduce the total net social force on yourself, because net force only arises when there is incongruity between the behavior you are exhibiting and what the behaviors each of the pressures around you and your true self are pushing you towards. The equilibrium of all of those forces is the optimal level of compromise between your true self and those social pressures.