Peer Pressure Favors the Bold

“What did you think of Harry Wu?” I asked a Chinese student at our Tuesday luncheon. I was referring to Monday’s speaker at the convocation kicking off this year’s Symposium on Public Affairs. Wu had described the human rights abuses in the labor camps of the People’s Republic of China.

The student looked around uneasily. “I don’t like him,” was his surprising answer. I noticed that other Chinese students were nearby. They seemed interested in my question but did not volunteer an opinion. I asked another and another the same question. Some just smiled and looked embarrassed. Others agreed with the first student. “He’s not a good man,” one said.

I think I understand what they were thinking. I am afraid. My fellow students are listening and could easily report back home what I am saying here in America. Maybe I myself will be the next to tour the labor camps—as a laborer! No thanks!

The reaction might have been different if that first student had responded with something like: “I can’t believe what he was saying is true! We do not starve our own people and herd them like cattle.” The other Chinese students may then have felt free to discuss the pros and cons of what Wu claimed. But the first to speak put a lid on all conversation.

This is how peer pressure works in a small group. The first to speak creates an artificial consensus that the rest find hard to break. If the second goes along with the first, almost no one will fight against what now seems to be the unanimous view.

This is why it is vital for us Christians boldly to take the initiative and direct conversations toward God and doing what is right. If we are the first to speak, we can often sway the group. The fear of being first is not as overpowering as the fear of resisting what seems to be the consensus. Like the apostles, let us pray for boldness (Acts 5:23-31).

—Steve Singleton