It cannot be more cliched to call human beings social animals. But that doesn’t change the fact that it is true. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs puts social needs as the third basic need we aspire to fulfill. We like to be in the company of others. Often what we think and do is shaped by our interactions with the people around us.
Robert Cialdini, in his book, extensively describes a phenomenon called social proof. It says that one method for deciding what is correct is to learn what other people think is right. We regard a behavior as more correct in each situation if we see others doing it.
It serves a social purpose; people don’t have to do everything on their own – they can look to others’ experiences and suggestions. It makes life a little easier. It gives the comfort that they are not alone in doing something.
Social proof has a significant impact on one’s career choices. Often our career choices are narrowed down to the careers taken up by our peers. People who tend to confirm their decisions by their peers especially fall victim to such errors. In the short term, it reduces the burden of making a difficult decision. But the career options one would consider would be limited when looking at only her peers.
Firstly, such individuals stay less aware of the breadth of their career choices. Lack of awareness reduces the career options available to them.
Secondly, peer pressure can manifest in a slightly different form where the social comparison comes into play. Here, competition becomes the driving factor. Acting out of competitive forces, a student may try to outdo other peers by taking a more socially rewarding career choice over a personally preferred role that is less socially valued – to signal a higher social status.
Either of the two forms of peer pressure has implications in the form of sub-optimal job fit, inadequate performance, or educational/job satisfaction. It might have been the case that an individual had artistic sensibilities and could have excelled in a creative field, but he chose to become a mediocre engineer.
Another aspect to explore is the strong peer resistance or derision if an individual opts for a non-traditional career. Considering an amusing example, HR aspirants are often subject to jokes by peers opting for more ‘esteemed’ functional fields such as Finance or Consulting. Often a joke is made about ‘Rangoli making’ to be the core job of HR professionals. While not all individuals might be affected by such resistance or active discouragement, some reconsider their choices.
It becomes important then for the institutions – such as schools or colleges to encourage career choices that align best with the personality or competencies of an individual rather than his peer group. Adequate mechanisms must be implemented and readily accessible to students seeking career guidance.