In 1951, social psychologist Solomon Asch designed an experiment about peer pressure, leadership, and conformity. Asch presented groups of college students with pictures of differently sized lines and asked the students to indicate which line most closely matched the length of another line presented. The answers in all cases were objectively obvious. In each group, all but one of Asch’s participants were “in on” the experiment and purposely provided false answers in order for the researchers to see whether or not the one unwittingly outnumbered participant followed the opinion of the majority. In about one third of Asch’s studies, the one “blind” participant ended up providing an incorrect answer, and claiming, wrongly, that one line matched the length of the reference line, when it did not. Asch’s research provided firm evidence for the power of peer pressure in influencing the degree to which even the strongest individuals of the highest moral fiber can be made to conform to inaccurate or irrational thinking.
Long before Asch’s experiments, however, this very struggle was unfortunately center stage in the infamous story of Korach and his followers. In this week’s Parsha, Korach rebels against Moshe, claiming that it is grossly unfair that Moshe and Aharon alone among the tribe of Levi are elevated to such high positions of leadership. The Pasuk (16:3) recounts Korach’s chief complaint, “Rav lachem! - You have taken too much for yourselves!” While this is not the first complaint launched against Moshe and Aharon (or God) in the years in the desert, Korach’s dispute is known to be among the worst, as the Torah itself warns us (17:5) to not be like Korach and his followers! Despite the many other sins that have been recounted in recent Parshios, we are not told, “do not be like the spies,” or even “do not be like the Mekallel (the Jew who cursed Hashem),” but we are told, “do not be like Korach and his followers.” What was so much more menacing about Korach and his rebellion that we are thus warned?
Rashi (16:1) explains that Korach’s main grievance stemmed from the fact that only Aharon and his descendants from among the whole tribe of Levi were chosen for the Kehunah, whereas the rest of the Leviim were not. One might expect that other Leviim would join the cause, seeing as Korach’s complaint was focused mostly on the imbalance of power among their tribe. Yet, so powerful was Korach’s influence that he was able to convince hundreds of men to rebel against Moshe and Aharon along with him. Korach managed to convince his neighbors, Shevet Reuven, and other non-Levites such as the Eirev Rav, that his complaint was legitimate, even though it had nothing to do with them. Shevet Reuven was unaffected by the distribution of power among the Leviim. And, looking at Aharon and Moshe objectively, it should be obvious to any onlooker that these men were clearly head and shoulders above the rest of the nation. Did we not just hear from God in Parshas B’Haaloscha that Moshe alone spoke to God face to face?
The insidious danger of Korach’s influence was that he succeeded in gathering so many followers, despite the obvious flaws in his logic, and, most importantly, despite the fact that the root of his complaint did not even affect most of them.
And why did those who joined Korach’s dispute choose to follow him, so much so that they were quite literally swallowed whole as a result of the rebellion? Rashi (16:1) explains that Reuven lived physically close to Korach and his family, the family of Kehat, and therefore were in closest proximity to his influence, and thus most susceptible. Rashi then makes a critical and powerfully keen observation, “woe to a wicked person and woe to his neighbor;” this does not just refer to those who literally live next-door, but rather to anyone in close proximity to us, by whom we can be influenced, and upon whom we in turn can be influential. Korach’s followers succumbed to peer pressure, to the influence of Korach’s charisma and power, despite the seemingly illogical, foolish nature of their role in their dispute.
There are two crucial lessons to be internalized from this story. The first, and perhaps the more obvious, is to be wary of the influences around us, and the impact that others can have upon our beliefs and choices. Even if it seems like other peoples’ opinions, beliefs, or values have little to do with us, and do not affect us, we must still guard ourselves against the power of peer pressure to change our own beliefs and values.
The second lesson, however, is equally as important, and that is to recognize that every single one of us is someone else’s neighbor, both literally and metaphorically. I once heard from one of my teachers, Mrs. Aliza Feder, that every person has the capacity to be someone else’s peer pressure - someone is always looking at you and thinking that what you are doing, wearing, saying, valuing, is worthy of duplication. We might not think of ourselves as particularly influential; perhaps we are not on social media, we do not follow others, and do not have literal followers (and, if you are and do, recognize the power of those mediums of influence!). Assuming you ever interact with any other human beings, however, there is definitely at least one person, perhaps many others, who will think of you as a role model, as someone worth following, and this potential for peer pressure can be maximized in many positive ways.
Though “peer pressure” often has a negative connotation, as in Dr. Asch’s study as well as in Korach’s rebellion, lihavdil, the root of the idea is that even a few people, even one person, can have a powerful impact on others. Consider yourself not as a just a Jew, going about her life, but as an influencer, a role model, to whom someone, perhaps multiple someones, is looking for insight and inspiration. With this in mind, we can strengthen ourselves to be mindful of the people and ideas influencing us, as well as of our own power to influence others.