Acting for Others
© 4 Sep 2017 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0
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Peer pressure and image maintenance.


This past week I began teaching early-morning seminary. Seminary is a course for high school-age teens in our church where they participate in an hour of instruction on religion, faith, and scriptural teachings every school day before school begins. There is much to be said for and about this program, and I suspect I will mention it more in future posts, but it also provides the context for this post.

When I was a teenager attending early morning seminary, I recall mentally dividing the class into two groups: those who were awake and engaged and those who were sleepy and inert. A simplistic model, but one I had no occasion to revisit until I was actually standing in front of my class this week, trying to foster a moment of spiritual insight, and it became clear that there were some students who seemed to be awake, alert, present at 7am in a class whose purpose is religious, and purposefully not engaging in the lesson. I postulated reasons, revised my instruction, and things improved, but I also didn’t let the matter rest there.

Later in the week I asked each student to anonymously write their responses to the following questionnaire, selecting as many answers as applied.

In my ideal seminary lesson

  1. I’m sleeping in but my parents think I’m in seminary
  2. the teacher entertains me
  3. the teacher explains things I didn’t know
  4. the teacher guides me to learn from the scriptures
  5. we explore the scriptures together and are taught by the spirit
  6. I am taught by the spirit individually beyond the lesson
  7. my less-spiritual friends learn what I already know
  8. I don’t learn much, but I feel the spirit confirm what I already know
  9. my friends believe I don’t care
  10. my friends believe I already knew it
  11. my friends believe I am interested in the lesson

The results were interesting. No one selected answer 1, everyone answer 2, and each of the others were selected by some but not all students.

The portion of the responses I want to focus on in this post is that most of my students selected at least one of the last three options. To some degree this is no great surprise: teenagers care what their friends think of them. But I was surprised they recognized and reported that they want to learn new things and their friends think they didn’t learn, or have the spirit speak to them individually and have their friends think they don’t care.

When I was younger, peer pressure was mentioned often as a motivator to be aware and wary of. But this isn’t really peer pressure; its source is ones peers, but if I had to guess I’d put “‍don’t care‍” image students and “‍seem interested‍” image students as friends. Maintaining their image despite pressure from their friends is part of their motivation.

And not just their motivation, either. At twice their age, I find myself still making choices to present and image.

Sometimes that image is calculated: there is actionable power in becoming known as a person fitting one mold or another. A great deal of my ability to influence department and school policy has hinged on my image as an engaged, interested member of the faculty. Sometimes that image has resulted from actual interest, but sometimes it has been bolstered by my doing things I didn’t really want to do simply because they supported this image.

Not all of my image-maintenance choices are motivated by my understanding of political and social capital. Sometimes I do arbitrary, contradictory, and unwise things not because anyone is pressuring me to do them or because I think they are good decisions but simply because I have an image to maintain. Once I think people know me as a guy who does X, it becomes hard to choose not to do X.

I wish I didn’t have this particular character trait. I wish I was a person who would make the right choice because it was right. And sometimes I am that person; more often now than a decade ago, and hopefully more often a decade in the future than now. But I have also learned a useful strategy for using my image-maintenance urges to my advantage. An example:

I believe I ought to obey all traffic laws. But sometimes I want to speed, to reduce my time on the road or try to get to a light before it turns red or to get away from that erratic driver or to give in to the peer pressure of my fellow speeding drivers. However, I have successfully turned my prideful image maintenance against my urge to speed by letting it be known that I am a speed-limit-follower. Since I have lived in a small enough town for long enough that I can never be sure someone around hasn’t recognized my car, I now have an extra motivation to drive legally: my rational desire to obey law is augmented by my prideful desire to maintain my image.

I am convinced that image maintenance is a common motivator in almost all people. To the degree that we craft images that encourage good behavior, this can work to our advantage, using the urge to appear to bolster our resolve. But it can also work to our disadvantage, encouraging bad behavior and dishonesty and complicating our interactions with others whose images are contrary to the people we want them to be.

So what should I do to help my seminary students who want the “‍don’t care about church‍” image? I don’t have the answer to that question yet, but simply knowing they are there, and that they know and consciously acknowledge they are there, and that they still want to learn despite their image, is encouraging me to find ways to help them. Whether I’ll try to help them change their image or try to give them ways to learn and grow without appearing to learn and grow I have not yet decided; I’ll probably give both a try.I would say “‍give both a try and report back,‍” but I doubt that I’ll have the kind of instant success that will lead to me to ever say “‍that worked; I can write a post about that.‍”

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