Most people—no matter their age or social status—want to get along with others. When people feel like their opinions, their likes and dislikes, or other basic aspects of their personality don’t match those around them, they sometimes pretend to be someone else—to fit in. And for teens, part of this desire is connected to how the brain develops. In fact, the teen brain is wired to respond very strongly to “social rewards.”
Hiding and seeking
Doing stuff to fit in with your classmates is part of what we mean by “peer pressure.” You may have heard this term when it comes to doing what others are egging you on to do, or following others’ bad decisions. But peer pressure also includes mimicking the way other people think and act and pretending you share their tastes and opinions.
For example, you might say you like a sports team you don’t care about, because the team is popular with people you want to hang out with. Or you might decide not to join a club that interests you, because a friend made fun of it. Or maybe it’s about how you look—you alter your appearance to be more like your friends.
Research has found that teens may also be tempted to try drugs because they believe this is normal behaviour for their peers. And the reverse is true too—when it’s considered “normal” not to use drugs, teens are less likely to do so. (Just for the record, teens’ drug use is actually decreasing.)
One researcher uses the term “camouflaging” to describe how teens sometimes change their behaviour for social reasons. Teens who camouflage themselves hide aspects of who they really are so they’ll blend in with others. They want to avoid being singled out in any way.
Walking the line
A famous study from 1951 illustrates this camouflaging impulse. The researcher, Solomon Asch, gathered groups of eight college students in a room together and showed them all a card with three lines of different lengths on it. Then he showed them a second card with one line (the “comparison line”) on it and asked them, one at a time, to say which of the three lines on the first card was the same length as the comparison line. (The right answer was always obvious.)
Asch told the subjects that the study was testing their ability to notice different measurements, but—surprise!—it was really testing something completely different. Seven of the eight students were actually Asch’s assistants; they deliberately answered incorrectly to see if the eighth participant (the only real one) would give the correct answer or conform (go along) with their obviously incorrect answers to the line test. Three out of four participants conformed at least once, by giving the wrong answer!
When Asch interviewed the participants after the experiment, most of them said they didn’t really believe their conforming (and wrong) answers. They said they’d gone along with the group to avoid being ridiculed or seen as "peculiar." In short, they camouflaged.
Liking who you are
How common is camouflaging? Research hasn’t explored that question in depth, but there have been a few studies about how it shows up, particularly in girls. In a survey conducted in the USA of more than 1,000 girls ages 8–17, 74% of them said that girls are under a lot of pressure to please everybody. 55% said girls are expected to speak softly and not cause trouble.
Boys in the same age range, meanwhile, may feel pressure to fit in by not showing compassion even though they feel it, or not telling anyone when they feel depressed or lonely, because they fear looking “weak” or emotional.
The bottom line is, it’s normal to want to fit in. But it’s important to your health that you value who you are and surround yourself with people with whom you can be your true self. If you feel like none of your friends really know the real you, it may be a good time to talk with your parents or a school counsellor to get support.
A good first step is having the courage to try something new—join that school club or try out for that school play or concert. Your brain may be wired to care what your peers think, but it’s also wired to help you try out new, healthy activities. The people who follow their own path are the ones who more often get the most respect and go the farthest in life.