Identifying Influences From Your Social Circles To Reduce Their Harmful Effects On Your Goals

October 23, 2016



On my travels throughout europe i've been faced with many situations where the pressure to just fall into the crowd instead of stay on my goals has been significant. It made me think of you and what you can do to balance these social pressures. The last few years have seen a significant rise in the amount of research in social networks’ that catch my attention. Such as the influence on the spread of obesity. One such research, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, suggests that real-life social networks impact obesity by “normalizing” a heavier body weight and influencing behaviors that are associated with weight gain.


Yale professors, Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, examined the spread of obesity within Framingham, Massachusetts and observed that an individual’s weight gain can influence a friend, a friend of a friend, and a friend of a friend of a friend. Also, a person’s chance of becoming obese increased if siblings or spouses had become obese. So if you want to make a dent in the obesity issue,  you must be aware of the subtle influences that social networks have on you and your behaviors.

There are two ways social networks can have an impact on a person’s goals. Let's continue with weight as an example. First, everyone has a certain reference value for their ideal weight, perhaps an old high school or college weight to achieve, or in comparison to peers. Social networks can set the standard for what is a normal or “acceptable” weight. For example, if most of your friends and family members are overweight or obese, you may have to gain a substantial amount of weight before a sufficient discrepancy between real and ideal states exists. This only delays the need to make the necessary changes in life.


Secondly, peers, colleagues, and family may disrupt or outright derail weight loss-promoting behaviors. For example, in social situations, you may eat more sugary sweets or drink more soda and alcoholic beverages than  you intend to. (confession: So happening to me during my european tour at the moment)

Social groups dictate the reference point of a normal weight.

As alluded to, peer groups set a standard for what weight is considered normal and subsequently change the point for when current weight would compel one to change his or her behavior.


Here is an example of how this may work: 

A normal body mass index (BMI)  is in the range of 19-24.9; an overweight BMI ranges from 25-29.9 while obesity is considered 30 and upwards.


Imagine three different peer groups. In group one, members have an average BMI of 21. In group two, members have an average BMI of 24, and group three is made up of an average BMI of 28. Despite being overweight, those members in group three have no social pressure to change behaviors. However, if someone from group one were to gain body fat until his BMI matched the norm of group three’s, he would feel sufficient social pressure (just from comparison) to lose weight.


Same weight, different levels of social influence to change. In other words, we tend to group and bond with those similar to us.

In social psychology, this is called homophily. In their research, Christakis and Fowler examined that over time obese and leaner individuals would form their own separate social clusters. That is, healthy people hang out with other healthy folks, while obese or overweight people hang out with other obese or overweight friends.


Healthy people are more likely to be exposed to new health innovations or trends more frequently than those in an obese cluster. This greater exposure leads to greater adoption of beneficial behaviors, and the same holds true for unfavorable behaviors. People tend to mimic those who are similar to them, so the behaviors of leaner individuals do not necessarily lead to adoption by overweight or obese individuals, who may see themselves as part of a different group.


But there’s good news, and this is key.




According to an experimental study: If most of your peers in your social network are overweight or obese, you adopting health behaviors can have a positive influence on them. If they see you succeed and try new health behaviors, they may believe they can do so as well. Thus, by adapting your behavior you can encourage positive impacts on your own social network.


This idea is meant to empower.

Viewing peer behavior as an obstacle to goal-directed behavior

In social psychology, descriptive norms describe what normal behavior entails. If you have set weight loss goals, but the normal behaviors your peer group do not support this you may run into what is called disturbances. Disturbances are considered anything that gets in the way of acting on behaviors that work toward a goal. "Disturbances" are just obstacles to overcome that will serve to strengthen you.


Here are a few examples:


Scenario 1

Goal: You want to lose 20 pounds. In order to do this, you decided to bring your lunch of one of the delicious Sweat Nation Recipes.


Disturbance: A co-worker whom you usually have lunch with invites you to the new hot pizzeria that st opened up.


Scenario 2

Goal: You want to finally hit the number you have set for your emergency fund. You've decided to cut back on eating out.


Disturbance: A friend comes over to suggest you go for a weekend away to wine country. Your friend pours a glass from one of the wineries to visit and hands it to you. Your want to say, No, thank you, but she pressures to want to go is high, besides who doesn't want to have a nice weekend drinking good wine. 


Scenario 3

Goal: You want to eat healthier to optimize your mind/body. You decide to cut out sweets, such as cake, pastries, and any sugary drinks.


Disturbance: Your invited to a family party. There is banana walnut cake with vanilla frosting, which happens to be exactly what you're "craving". Cousin Jenn offers you a piece.

How would you go about overcoming these challenges in each of these scenarios?

There's nothing wrong with “moderation.” Maybe you have a slice, a shared glass of wine, and a sliver of cake. In an ideal world, this is how it could work. The problem is when you give in and slip up on making the “obvious right” choices a majority of the time.

In order to gain back control, this is the opportunity to practice some self-regulation strategies. In scenario three, for example, you may form a plan based on knowing what types or food will be at the party. You can then decide to say “Rather than eating cake, I will have a piece of fruit.”

I’d also like to share a particularly effective strategy that I came across. Here’s what it looks like. Oftentimes if you don't want to conform to norms, you will receive resistance from their peeps.

“Are you sure you don’t want a piece of cake?”

“Why aren’t you coming out to drink lately?”

“Well, I don’t want to walk to the pizzeria alone. Just come with me today.”

And so on and so forth.

These seemingly harmless comments are a form of peer pressure that causes you to cave and perform behaviors that are counterproductive to your goals. If you don’t want to have that cake, eat that pizza, or meet up as often for the drinking get togethers, Keep reminding yourself of your reason.


Let’s look at the first scenario again and see what adding because… can do.

Situation 1

Colleague: “I’m going to the hot new Pizzeria for lunch. Want to go with me?”

You: “No, thank you, I’m not hungry.”

Colleague: “Well, I don’t want to walk to the pizzeria alone. Just come with me today.”


Situation 2

Colleague: “I’m going to the hot new Pizzeria for lunch. Want to go with me?”

You: “No, thank you, I’m not hungry, I already had my lunch today.”

Colleague: “Okay, I’ll ask Tom.”

This might sound scripted, but there is success with this strategy. In fact, here is a real-life example of a client who was shocked by how well this strategy worked (and continues to do so).

Situation 1:

Boyfriend: “Do you want a glass of wine?”

Girlfriend: “No, thank you.”

Boyfriend: “Are you sure you don’t want any?”
Girlfriend: “Yes.”

Boyfriend: “Here just have a little.” (At this point, boyfriend pours half a glass of wine.)

Situation 2:

Boyfriend: “Do you want a glass of wine?”

Girlfriend: “No, thank you, I’m good because I’m actually feeling a little dehydrated.”

Boyfriend: “Let me get you a glass of water!”

And just like that, you can diffuse these tempting situations. Self-regulation strategies for social situations do not mean you have to completely deprive himself from the fun of having food and drinks with friends and family. These strategies also work for establishing moderation.


Here are examples: 


“If I am going out drinking with friends, I will drink a glass of water between each drink.”

“If I am going out to eat with a colleague, I will ask the waiter to box up half of my meal.”

“If I am at a family party and there is cake at the table, I will split my piece with my niece or nephew.”

Clearly, using the because… strategy effectively takes away any chance for the other party to resist.

The point is, make sure you can recognize the influence of the people you surround yourself with. When you make your own health changes, you can also positively impact your social network. If you can receive less peer pressure by forming self-regulation strategies like the ones we've gone over, you will be less likely to cave in to social situations.



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