Peer Influence

views updated May 18 2018

Peer Influence

The successful formation and navigation of interpersonal relationships with peers is a process central to adolescent development in all cultures. In European-American cultural contexts, an everincreasing amount of each day is spent in the company of peers, from 10 percent as early as two years of age to 40 percent between the ages of seven and eleven (Voydanoff and Donnelly 1999). By high school, teens are spending more than half of their time in the company of their peers (Updegraff et al. 2001). Because adolescents spend a large amount of their time with peers, it is not surprising that they play a highly influential role in adolescents' lives. The credibility, authority, power, and influence of peers is greater during adolescence than at any other time in life.

Although the process of socialization and individuation occurs in all cultures, the developmental time frame, goals, and practices are often unique (Cooper 1994). In the United States, the adolescents' developmental path is characterized by a transfer in closeness from parents to peers. In comparison with the emphasis placed by European-American cultures on individualism, other cultures, Asian and African cultures in particular, accentuate the socialization of "interdependence, self-control, social inhibition, and compliance" (Chen et al.
p. 771). For example, Catherine Cooper (1994) notes that the peer-like mutuality with which adolescents negotiate with their parents during their high school years is a uniquely European-American construct. In contrast, the universes of family and friends remain more distinct for Asian and Mexican immigrants (Cooper et al. 1994). Studies on parent-child and adult mate relationships in Japan and the United States by Fred Rothbaum and colleagues (Rothbaum et al. 2000) suggest that each culture has a different path of development. In Japan, adolescence is characterized by more stable relationships with parents and peers.

Development of Peer Influence

Normal adolescent development in European-American cultures involves a gradual movement from the importance of relationships with family towards those with peers for socialization, self-definition, friendship, and support. Adolescent peer groups function more autonomously than children's peer groups, with less guidance or control provided by adults. As teens distance themselves from adults, they simultaneously draw closer to their peers (Brown 1999). In middle school, individuals begin to form small groups of friends based on mutual attraction, called cliques, which can help bolster self-confidence and provide a sense of identity or belonging. In adolescence, these smaller peer groups associated with childhood expand to recognize larger peer collectives referred to as crowds. Bradford Brown (1999) suggests that crowds are large, loosely defined groups of youths who choose to associate with each other based primarily on a common identification with certain characteristics or activities. Crowds help adolescents to decide with whom to associate. Through these crowds and cliques, adolescents demonstrate their identity to others and to themselves (Brown 1999). Margaret Spencer and Sanford Dornbusch (1990) found that adolescents in the United States who are members of an ethnic minority, recent immigrants in particular, rely more heavily on the support of peer groups than European-American adolescents. The threat of not being accepted by their peers and the strain of belonging to two cultures can be especially difficult. Siu Kwong Wong (1998) found that Chinese Canadian youths who associate with Chinese Canadian friends are less likely to be involved in delinquent behavior than those who have cross-ethnic friendships. These various peer associations exert increasing pressure on the adolescent to adopt certain behaviors and attitudes—pressure to conform.

Peer conformity, sometimes referred to as peer pressure, occurs when individuals choose to adopt the attitudes or behaviors of others because of real or imagined pressure. In Western cultures, as the amount of time spent with peers increases, so does the influence and support they provide. Thomas Berndt (1979) traced the developmental patterns of family and peer influence in American families and found that in the third grade, the influence of parents and peers are often in opposition to each other. However, these children are influenced more by their parents than their peers. By sixth grade, the influence of peers rises dramatically, but it tends to be found in different situations from those of parents. Consequently, the influence of parents and peers are not in opposition. In ninth grade, conformity to peers peaks and is again in strong opposition to parents. At this time, peers often endorse the adoption of antisocial standards that inevitably conflict with parental values and standards. American adolescents' movement towards independence peaks around ninth grade and is met with maximal opposition from parents (Scholte, van Lieshout, van Aken 2001). Adolescent conformity to peer influence declines through late high school and college-age years, and the influence of parents and peers begins to coincide in a number of areas.

Negative Peer Influence

Popular conceptions regarding the influence of peers in adolescence often focus on their negative effects—peer pressure—to the exclusion of current empirical research attesting to the myriad positive aspects of peer influence. Supportive relationships between socially skilled adolescents confer developmental advantages while coercive and conflictual relationships confer disadvantages. Willard H. Hartup (1996) summarizes the situation with the following statement: "Knowing that a teenager has friends tells us one thing, but the identity of his or her friends tells us something else" (p. 2).

Across a variety of cultural settings, adolescents tend to be friends with those who are most like them. In fact, sociodemographic characteristics are usually the strongest predictors of friendship formation. Different types of peer groups have unique capacities to encourage negative or positive behaviors in their members. Adolescent mis-conduct most often occurs in groups. In the United States, cliques are often distinguished from other peer groups through the pressure they exert on their members to conform to certain norms in school orientation, drug use, and sexual behavior. Researchers found clear differences among six different cliques in their participation in high-risk health behaviors, including smoking cigarettes, alcohol use, marijuana use, and engagement in illicit sexual behavior (Prinstein, Fetter, and La Green 2001). Furthermore, members of "deviantly ordered" cliques are more likely to drop out of high school (Cairns and Cairns 1994). Across many cultures, perceived behavior and sanctions of friends are among the strongest predictors of an adolescent's misconduct (Greenberger et al. 2000). Jill V. Hamm (2000) found that when compared with European-American and Asian-American adolescents, African-American adolescents chose friends who were less similar in terms of academic orientation or substance use, but more similar in terms of ethnic identity.

Positive Peer Influence

Peer relationships can be a powerful positive influence in the lives of adolescents. Natural observations of adolescents indicate that most adolescents discuss options with their friends before reaching a consensus about what to do. Rarely is one adolescent pressured to conform to the rest of the group. Moreover, high school students in several large samples reported that their friends discouraged drug and alcohol use, delinquent activities, and other types of antisocial behavior more than they encouraged them; they also claimed their friends encouraged studying for school subjects more than they discouraged it (Brown, Clasen, and Eicher 1986). Some adolescents even display anticonformity, rejecting their peer's judgments, and making different decisions altogether. Friendships inherently limit the use and effectiveness of coercive pressure because they are relationships based on equality and mutual respect; consequentially, decisions are made by negotiation, not domination.

Adolescents choose friends who have characteristics or talents that they admire, which motivates them to achieve and act as their friends act. Friends encourage adolescents to study hard at school and can also help them think more creatively (Brown et al. 1986). High-achieving peers have positive effects on adolescents' satisfaction with school, educational expectations, report-card grades, and standardized achievement test scores (Epstein 1983). In Canada, 80 percent of graduates from high school had friends who believed completing high school was important, and only 2 percent had friends who thought this was unimportant (Statistics Canada 1993). Students with friends who like school, get good grades, and are interested in school are more likely to graduate high school (Ekstrom et al. 1986). Hence, having friends who believe that academic achievement is important is beneficial for adolescents.

Family Relationships and Peer Influence

Outside of the classroom, adolescents who have friends have better family relationships and more positive attitudes toward family relationships. Friendships can also compensate for inadequate families. For example, adolescents who have low levels of family cohesion but have close and supportive friends have levels of self-worth and social competence equal to their peers who come from cohesive families (Guaze et al. 1996). Friends allow for high self-esteem (which includes freedom from depression) and self-worth, thereby promoting the exploration and development of personal strengths (Hartup 1999). Furthermore, adolescents who are engaged in friendships are more likely to be altruistic, display affective perspective-taking skills, maintain positive peer status (Savin-Williams and Berndt 1990), and have continued involvement in activities such as sports or arts (Patrick et al. 1999). Finally, having close same-sex friendships in adolescence forecasts success in early romantic relationships in early adulthood (Collins et al. 1997).

Although peers are very important for adolescents during this developmental stage, parents also play an influential role in adolescents' lives. Laurence Steinberg and his colleagues (1992) found that adolescents whose friends and parents support academic achievement perform better than adolescents who receive support from only one, or neither. Hence, both parents and friends are important for adolescents' development. Moreover, adolescents are less influenced by friends when they have close and involving relationships with their parents (Steinberg and Silverberg 1986). The ability of friends to influence the behaviors and attitudes of adolescents is magnified when adolescents perceive that their parental relationship is negative or deficient in support and guidance (Savin-Williams and Berndt 1990). Parenting styles can also affect peer influence. Authoritative parenting encourages adolescents to be less susceptible to peer influence specifically in domains in which peers are engaging in unacceptable behaviors, but more susceptible to peer influence in domains that are approved by adults (Mounts and Steinberg 1995). Hence, parents can adjust their style of parenting to reflect these favorable outcomes.

In summary, peers are more influential in adolescence than at any other time in life. The quality of the relationship between adolescents and their peers, as well as the type of peers they associate with, play important roles in aiding or impeding their current and future functioning. There are aspects of all peer relations that are unique to the culture and environment in which they exist. The relationship parents have with their adolescents influences their children's susceptibility to negative peer influence.

See also:Childhood, Stages of: Adolescence; Childhood, Stages of: Middle Childhood; Childhood, Stages of: Preschool; Conduct Disorder; Friendship; Play; Shyness


berndt, t. j. (1979). "developmental changes in conformity to peers and parents." developmental psychology 15(6):608–616.

brown, b. b. (1999). "you're going out with who?: peer group influences on adolescent romantic relationships." in the development of romantic relationships in adolescence, ed. w. furman and b. b. brown. new york: cambridge university press.

brown, b. b.; clasen, d. r.; and eicher, s. a. (1986). "perceptions of peer pressure, peer conformity dispositions, and self-reported behavior among adolescents." developmental psychology 22:521–530.

cairns, r. b., and cairns, b. d. (1994). lifelines and risks:pathways of youth in our time. new york: cambridge university press.

chen, c.; greenberger, e.; lester, j.; dong, q.; and guo, m. (1998). "a cross-cultural study of family and peer correlates of adolescent misconduct." developmental psychology 34(4):770–781.

collins, w. a.; hennighausen, k. c.; schmit, d. t.; and sroufe, l. a. (1997). "developmental precursors of romantic relationships: a longitudinal analysis." in romantic relationships in adolescence: developmental perspectives, ed. s. shulman and w. a. collins. san francisco: jossey-bass.

cook, t. d.; anson, a. r.; and walchi, s. b. (1993). "from causal description to causal explanation: improving three already good evaluations of adolescent health programs." in promoting the health of adolescents, ed. s. g. millstein, a. c. petersen, and e. o. nightingale. new york: oxford university press.

cooper, c. r. (1994). "cultural perspectives on continuity and change in adolescents' relationships." in personal relationships during adolescence, ed. r. montemayor and g. r. adams. thousand oaks, ca: sage.

cooper, c. r.; azmitia, m.; garcia, e. e.; ittel, a.; lopez, e.; rivera, l.; and martinez-chavez, r. (1994). "aspirations of low-income mexican american and european american parents for their children and adolescents." in promoting community-based programs for socialization and learning, ed. f. a. villarruel and r. m. lerner. san francisco: jossey-bass.

devereaux, m. s., ed. (1993). leaving school: results from a national survey comparing school leavers and high school graduates 18 to 20 years of age. ottawa: minster of supplies and services canada.

ekstrom, r. b.; goertz, m. e.; pollack, j. m.; and rock, d. a. (1986). "who drops out of high school and why? findings from a national study." teachers college record 87:356–373.

epstein, j. l. (1983). "the influence of friends on achievement and affective outcomes." in friends in school: patterns of selection and influence in secondary schools, ed. j. l. epstein and n. karweit. new york: academic press.

fuligni, a. j.; eccles, j. s.; barber, b. l.; and clements, p. (2001). "early adolescent peer orientation and adjustment during high school." developmental psychology 37(1):28–36.

greenberger, e.; chen, c.; beam, m.; whang, s.; and dong, q. (2000). "the perceived social contexts of adolescents' misconduct: a comparative study of youths in three cultures." journal of research on adolescence 10(3):365–388.

guaze, c.; bukowski, w. m.; aquan-assee, j.; and sippola, l. k. (1996). "interactions between family environment and friendship and associations with self-perceived well-being during early adolescence." child development 67:2201–2216.

hallinan, m. t. (1983). "commentary: new directions for research on peer influence." in friends in school: patterns of selection and influence in secondary schools, ed. j. l. epstein and n. karweit. new york: academic press.

hamm, j. v. (2000). "do birds of a feather flock together? the variable bases for african american, asian american, and european american adolescents' selection of similar friends." developmental psychology 36(2):209–219.

hartup, w. w. (1996). "the company they keep: friendships and their developmental significance." child development 67(1):1–13.

hartup, w. w. (1999). "peer experience and its developmental significance." in developmental psychology: achievements and prospects, ed. m. bennett. philadelphia: psychology press.

mounts, n. s., and steinberg, l. (1995). "an ecological analysis of peer influence on adolescent grade point average and drug use." developmental psychology 31(6):915–922.

patrick, h.; ryan, a. m.; alfeld-liro, c.; fredricks, j. a.; hruda, l. z.; and eccles, j. s. (1999). "adolescents' commitment to developing talent: the role of peers in continuing motivation for sports and the arts." journal of youth and adolescence 28(6):741–763.

prinstein, m. j.; boergers, j.; and spirito, a. (2001). "adolescents' and their friends' health-risk behavior: factors that alter or add to peer influence." journal of pediatric psychology 26(5):287–298.

rothbaum, f.; pott, m.; azuma, h.; miyake, k.; and weisz, j. (2000). "the development of close relationships in japan and the united states: paths of symbiotic harmony and generative tension." child development 71(5):1121–1142.

savin-williams, r. c., and berndt, t. j. (1990). "friendships and peer relations during adolescence." in at the threshold: the developing adolescent, ed. s. s. feldman and g. r. elliott. cambridge, ma: harvard university press.

scholte, r. h. j.; van lieshout, c. f. m.; and van aken, m. a. g. (2001). "perceived relational support in adolescence: dimensions, configurations, and adolescent adjustment." journal of research on adolescence 11(1):71–94.

spencer, m. b., and dornbusch, s. m. (1990). "challenges in studying minority youth." in at the threshold: the developing adolescent, ed. s. s. feldman and g. r. elliott. cambridge, ma: harvard university press.

steinberg, l.; dornbusch, s. m.; and brown, b. b. (1992). "ethnic differences in adolescent achievement: an ecological perspective." american psychologist 47:723–729.

steinberg, l., and silverberg, s. b. (1986). "the vicissitudes of autonomy in early adolescence." child development 57:841–851.

updegraff, k. a.; mchale, s. m.; crouter, a. c.; and kupanoff, k. (2001). "parents' involvement in adolescents' peer relationships: a comparison of mothers' and fathers' roles." journal of marriage and family 63(3):655–668.

voydanoff, p., and donnelly, b. w. (1999). "multiple roles and psychological distress: the intersection of the paid worker, spouse, and parent roles with the role of the adult child." journal of marriage and the family 61(3):725–738.

wong, s. k. (1998). "peer relations and chinese-canadian delinquency." journal of youth and adolescence 27(5):641–659.

Other Resources

"dealing with peer pressure." in kidshealth. available from

"developmental psychology—the peer context." in the psi café: a psychological resource site. available from

"peer pressure." in focus on the family. available from

"society for research in adolescence: peer special interest group." in society for research in adolescence. available from

peter t. haugen
sharon c. risch
deborah p. welsh

Peer Pressure

views updated May 18 2018

Peer pressure


Peer pressure is the influence of a social group on an individual.


Children and teenagers feel social pressure to conform to the group of peers with whom they socialize. This peer pressure can influence how children dress, what kind of music they listen to, and what types of behavior they engage in, including risky behaviors such as using drugs, cigarettes, and alcohol, and engaging in sex. The intensity of peer pressure differs from situation to situation.

Peer groups are usually cliques of friends who are about the same age. Peer pressure can begin in early childhood with children trying to get other kids to play the games they want. It generally increases through childhood and reaches its intensity in the preteen and teen years. Virtually all adolescents in middle and high school deal with peer pressure, often on a daily basis. It is how children and teens learn to get along with others of their own age group and eventually learn how to become independent. Depending on the group trying to apply the influence, peer pressure can be negative or positive.

Starting in middle school, children begin to spend more time with their friends and less time with their parents and family . Although some children remain loners and not part of any group, most preteens tend to be part of a small group of friends called a clique. In children ages eleven to fourteen, it is most common for members of these cliques to be of the same sex. Children will spend a lot of time with friends in their clique, interacting by going to the movies or the mall, talking on the telephone, or chatting online with instant messaging. They know which kids belong to particular cliques and who the loners are. Within the cliques, talk about the opposite sex is popular as is making arrangements for out of school activities.

Children also generally belong to a crowd, which is a larger group of kids from several cliques. While members of the cliques are close friends, members of the crowd outside a clique are casual acquaintances. Crowds are often large groups with common interests such as athletes (jocks), kids who like school (preppies), kids lacking good looks or social skills but who excel at particular intellectual interests (nerds), and drug users (druggies).

Some kids give in to peer pressure because they want to be liked, to fit in, or because they worry that other kids may make fun of them if they do not go along with the group. Others may go along because they are curious to try something new that others are doing. The idea that "everyone is doing it" may influence some kids to ignore their better judgment or their common sense. Peer pressure can be extremely strong and seductive. Experiments have shown how peer pressure can influence children to change their minds from what they know for sure is acceptable behavior to unacceptable behavior just because everyone else in their peer group is doing it. These studies have also shown that all it takes for individuals to stand their ground on what they know is right is for one other peer to join them. That principle holds true for youth of any age in peer pressure situations, according to the Online organization KidsHealth (<>).

Children and adolescents cannot always avoid negative peer pressure. It may continue to be a fact of life through childhood, adolescence , and into adulthood. Quoted from an article in the September 2002 issue of Current Health 2, A Weekly Reader Publication, the following are strategies young people can use to deal with negative peer pressure effectively:

  • Avoid putting yourself in situations that make you feel uncomfortable. For example, if you don't want to start smoking , stay away from areas where you know kids go to smoke.
  • Choose your friends wisely. If you hang around with people who share your values, chances are you'll never be asked to do something you don't want to do.
  • Think about the consequences whenever you are asked to do something you are not sure about. Stop for a moment and ask: Will this activity get me in trouble? Will it be harmful to my health?
  • Be true to yourself. Think about the reasons why you are considering doing something you are uncomfortable with. Is it to gain popularity? Although there is nothing wrong with wanting to be popular, there are right ways and wrong ways to achieve it. If you change your behavior just to fit in with a particular group, you are not being true to yourself.
  • Learn how to say no. This is perhaps the most difficult thing in the world for many people to do, but it is an essential skill if you are to successfully fend off negative peer pressure. There are many ways to say no, some of them subtle and some of them a little more "in your face." Several examples are: "You see it your way. I see it my way." "If you are really a friend, then back off." "You must think I'm pretty dumb to fall for that one."


Peer pressure can be found in groups as young as age two, when children will do things simply because other kids are doing it or tell them to. This can effect the child's behavior, social and emotional development, eating habits, play time, and sleeping patterns.


Preschoolers will go out of their way to think and act like their friends, even though they know it may go against what they have been taught by their parents. At the ages of three and four, children start to see there are other values, opinions, and rules besides those set by their parents. They may demand to do things that their parents do not allow, such as watching television beyond a certain time or time limit, eating junk food, and playing with toys their parents do not deem appropriate, such as toy guns, simply because their friends do so.

At this age, it is normal for children to start challenging their parents, testing the limits and rules to see how far they can bend or break them. Many pediatricians suggest parents should remain firm, not overreact, and then move on. Peer pressure can have positive benefits for preschoolers, such as taking a nap or eating vegetables when they see their friends doing it.

School age

At ages five to eight, children make a concerted effort to please their friends, classmates, and playmates. Peer pressure can be a positive influence if friends encourage each other to strive to do better in school, sports , and creative activities. For example, a child may try harder at soccer if he or she has a friend who does well or may read more if that is what a friend does.

Peer pressure can also have a negative influence on children ages five to eight when a friend or friends encourage them to act in a way that is not natural for the child. Many pediatricians and child psychologists say it is best not to prohibit the child from hanging out with these friends but to make sure the child is aware of the consequences of unacceptable behavior. Focus on specific negative behaviors and explain why they are bad. Most children will not respond well if a parent or primary caregiver forbids them to associate with a friend or group of friends.

The effects of peer pressure usually begin to be seen heavily by middle school and through high school. As children turn into adolescents, involvement with their peers and the attraction of peer identification increases. Teens begin to experience rapid physical, emotional, and social changes, and they begin to question adult standards and the need for parental guidance. It is reassuring for teens to turn for advice to friends who understand and sympathize with them.

Adolescents expand their peer relationships to occupy a central role in their lives, often replacing their parents and family as their main source of advice, socializing, and entertainment activities. The peer group is a source of affection, sympathy, understanding, and experimentation. It is also a supportive setting for achieving the two primary developmental tasks of teens: finding answers to questions about their identity and discovering their autonomous self that is separate and independent from their parents.

At adolescence, peer relations expand to occupy a particularly central role in young people's lives. New types (opposite sex, romantic ties) and levels (crowds) of peer relationships emerge. Peers typically replace the family as the center of a young person's socializing and leisure activities. Teenagers have multiple peer relationships, and they confront multiple peer cultures that have remarkably different norms and value systems. The perception many adults have that peer pressure is one culture or a unified front of dangerous influence is inaccurate. More often than not, peers reinforce family values, but they have the potential to encourage problem behaviors as well. Although the negative peer influence is overemphasized, more can be done to help teenagers experience the family and the peer group as mutually constructive environments. The following are facts about parent, adolescent and peer relations.

  • During adolescence, parents and adolescents become more physically and psychologically distant from each other. This normal distancing is seen in decreases in emotional closeness and warmth, increases in parent-adolescent conflict and disagreement, and an increase in time adolescents spend with peers. Unfortunately, this tendency sometimes is encouraged by parents who are emotionally unavailable to their teenaged children.
  • Increases in family strains such as economic pressures or divorce may prompt teenagers to depend more on peers for emotional support. By the high school years, most teenagers report feeling closer to friends than parents. Stress caused by work, marital dissatisfaction, family break-up caused by divorce, entering a step-family relationship, lower family income or increasing expenses, all produce increased individual and family stress.
  • In 10 to 20 percent of families, parents and adolescents are in distressed relationships characterized by emotional coldness and frequent outbursts of anger and conflict. Unresolved conflicts produce discouragement and withdrawal from family life. Adolescents in these families are at high risk for various psychological and behavioral problems.
  • Youth gangs , commonly associated with inner-city neighborhoods, are a recognizable peer group among youth in smaller cities, suburbs, and even rural areas. Gangs are particularly visible in communities with a significant portion of economically disadvantaged families and when parents are conflicted, distant, or unavailable.
  • Formal dating patterns of the 1980s have been replaced in the early 2000s with informal socializing patterns in mixed-sex groups. This may encourage casual sexual relationships that heighten the risk of exposure to human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and other sexually transmitted diseases.
  • There has been an increase in part-time employment among youth, but it has had little impact on peer relations. To find time for work, teenagers drop extracurricular activities , reduce time spent on homework, and withdraw from family interactions, but they protect time spent with friends.

Common problems

Negative peer pressure occurs when a child's or teen's friends or other people their age try to convince them to do something that is either harmful to their body or is against the law. Examples include drinking alcohol, taking drugs, smoking cigarettes, cutting classes, vandalizing, and stealing . Although teens usually know when something is bad for them, they often choose to do it because they want to be liked, to fit in, to be accepted, or because they're afraid they'll be looked down upon or made fun of.

Bruce A. Epstein in "How to combat negative peer pressure," in the September 2002 issue of Current Health 2, A Weekly Reader Publication, is quoted as saying, The "desire to be accepted by their peers is perhaps the strongest motivating force during dolescence." Many studies reinforce his theory. One study showed, for example, that a student who knew the correct answer to a question gave the wrong answer just because everyone else in the class gave the wrong answer.

There are various reasons why children are disliked by their peers. When trying to find ways to help these children, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking about what they do that bothers others. This focuses only on reducing these behavior problems but most rejected children also lack important social skills. They may not cooperate or be responsive to others, or they may not know how to respond in certain social situations. Teaching a child the missing skills is often more effective in improving peer relationships than working only on reducing negative behavior.

Parental concerns

Peer rejection in childhood often brings with it serious emotional difficulties. Rejected children are frequently discontent with themselves and with their relationships with other children. Many of these children experience strong feelings of loneliness and social dissatisfaction. Rejected children also report lower self-esteem and may be more depressed than other children. Peer rejection is also predictive of later life problems, such as dropping out of school, juvenile delinquency, and mental health problems. Dropping out of school seems to be a particularly frequent outcome. Results from research indicate that, on average, about 25 percent of low-accepted children drop out of school compared to 8 percent of other children, according to the National Network for Child Care at Iowa State University.

When to call the doctor

Parents may need to seek professional psychological help for children suffering from peer rejection, especially when the child is depressed or shows overly aggressive behavior . Help may also be needed for adolescents whose acceptance by peers relates to common negative behaviors, such as criminal activities, gang affiliation, bullying, smoking, and drug and alcohol abuse. Professional psychological help may also be needed if the child is depressed. If the child talks about or threatens suicide , professional help should be sought immediately.


Clique A close group of friends having similar interests and goals and whom outsiders regard as excluding them.

Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) A transmissible retrovirus that causes AIDS in humans. Two forms of HIV are now recognized: HIV-1, which causes most cases of AIDS in Europe, North and South America, and most parts of Africa; and HIV-2, which is chiefly found in West African patients. HIV-2, discovered in 1986, appears to be less virulent than HIV-1 and may also have a longer latency period.

Primary caregiver A person who is responsible for the primary care and upbringing of a child.



Auer, Jim, and R. W. Alley. Standing Up to Peer Pressure: A Guide to Being True to You. St. Louis, MO: Abbey Press, 2003.

Cherniss, Hilary, and Sara Jane Sluke. The Complete Idiot's Guide to Surviving Peer Pressure for Teens. New York: Alpha Books, 2001.

Koubek, Christine Wickert. Friends, Cliques, and Peer Pressure: Be True to Yourself. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 2002.

Thompson, Michael, et al. Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children. New York: Ballantine, 2001.


Bednar, Dell Elaine, and Terri D. Fisher. "Peer Referencing in Adolescent Decision Making as a Function of Perceived Parenting Style." "Adolescence 38, no. 152 (Winter 2003): 60721.

Frieden, Joyce. "Peer Pressure Likely to Prompt Tobacco Use: Behavior Predictors Studied." Family Practice News 34, no. 12 (June 15, 2004): 66.

MacReady, Norra. "Careful Questioning Can Uncover Drug Abuse (Peer Pressure is Powerful)." Pediatric News 36, no. 1(January 2002): 25.

Mostow, Allison J., et al. "Modeling Emotional, Cognitive, and Behavioral Predictors of Peer Acceptance." Child Development 73, no. 16 (November-December 2002): 177587.

Rafenstein, Mark. "How to Combat Negative Peer Pressure." Current Health 2, a Weekly Reader Publication 29, no. 1 (September 2002): 2931.

Stone, Alan A. "Loss of Innocence: Sex, Drugs, and Peer Group Pressure in Middle School." Psychiatric Times (January 1, 2004): 28.


National Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. 3615 Wisconsin Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20016. Web site: <>.

National Network for Child Care. Iowa State University Extension, 1094 LeBaron Hall, Ames, IA 50001. Web site: <>.


"Dealing with Peer Pressure." KidsHealth March 2001. Available online at <> (accessed October 13, 2004).

"Peer Influence and Peer Relationships." Focus Adolescent Services 2004. Available online at <> (accessed October 13, 2004).

Ken R. Wells

Peer Influence

views updated May 11 2018

Peer Influence





The study of peer influence has an important place in the social sciences, particularly in social psychology and developmental psychology. In a now classic series of studies conducted in the 1950s, Solomon Asch (19071996), a Polish-born American social psychologist, showed groups of eight to ten college students a set of three lines that differed clearly in length and asked them to indicate out loud which of the three lines was the same length as a fourth line. Only one of the group members was an actual experiment participant; the other group members were associates of the experimenter who were trained to respond incorrectly about the length of the line. In scenarios when the other group members provided unanimously incorrect responses, the experiment participants voiced the same opinion as the other group members one-third of the time. When they were later asked why they responded as they did, the experiment participants generally stated that they knew the group members were wrong in their choice of the matching line but said that they did not want to be ridiculed, ostracized, or thought peculiar by the rest of the group if they gave an opinion that went against the majority view. The many variants of Aschs experiments have been taken as evidence that peers exert considerable influence on the behavior of one another.

One of the difficulties that studying peer influence has encountered is the question of whether peers actually do influence one another or whether individuals who are similar to one another simply seek each other out. Although there is evidence that young people who engage in deviant behaviors seek out peers who also engage in deviant behaviors, studies that have been able to control for the effects of peer selection have shown that once deviant peers are together in a group, they do incrementally increase one anothers engagement in deviant behavior (e.g., Matsueda and Anderson 1998).


When thinking of peer influence, what comes readily to mind for most people is negative peer pressure. For example, parents, teachers, and other adults worry that adolescents will be pressured by their peers to smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol, have sexual intercourse, or engage in risky behaviors. Indeed, peers can and do influence one another to behave in more deviant ways. In several studies, the best predictor of whether an adolescent will engage in antisocial behavior has been found to be whether he or she affiliates with peers who engage in antisocial behavior (see Pratt and Cullen 2000).

On the other hand, peer influence can also be positive. For example, adolescents can study together, encourage each other to join an extracurricular activity, or provide a fun peer context that does not promote using drugs or engaging in risky behaviors. In fact, the premise of peer mentoring programs is that being paired with a well-adjusted peer can be a positive influence on a youth who is at risk for behavioral or psychological problems.


Several influential theories have attempted to explain how peers influence one another. Reinforcement theories emphasize that peers exert influence because they control (consciously or not) rewards that are meaningful. Individuals will behave in ways that are likely to maximize their rewards. Therefore, if an individual perceives that engaging in behavior promoted by peers will result in desired outcomes (e.g., acceptance by the group, high status, access to material possessions), he or she will be more influenced by peers.

Psychologist Thomas J. Dishions work on deviancy training has led to a better understanding of the mechanisms through which peers reinforce one anothers behavior during social interactions. Adolescent boys were observed with their best friend in a laboratory setting. The interactions were coded for whether one boy provided positive responses (such as laughter) when the other boy talked about deviant behavior. Boys whose interactions were characterized by this process of deviancy training were found to engage in subsequently higher levels of substance use, violence, and delinquency, even controlling for previous levels of problem behaviors (e.g., Dishion et al. 1996). Nondeviant boys typically ignored rather than reinforced deviant talk.

Modeling is another mechanism that has been proposed to explain how peers influence one another in either positive or negative ways. Peer mentoring programs often count on this mechanism as mentors model prosocial behavior in the hope of eliciting prosocial behavior from their mentees. On the other hand, observing others engage in deviant behaviors might lift an adolescents own inhibitions against behaving deviantly. For example, if adolescents observe that many of their classmates drink alcohol or skip school, a given adolescent may feel that social barriers against his or her own drinking or skipping school have been lifted. Fads in clothing or music preferences can also be explained through the mechanism of modeling, which can occur not just between individuals but also at the level of entire schools or neighborhoods.


Not all individuals are equally susceptible to peer influence. Age is a key factor that relates to individuals susceptibility to peer influence. Peer influence begins in the preschool years and increases in importance over time, generally peaking in early adolescence before decreasing as individuals enter later adolescence. Not only does the power of peer influence change with development, the outcomes that peers influence are likely to change as well. For example, peer influence has been found to affect aggression among preschoolers, aggression and covert antisocial behavior among children in elementary school, and substance use and sexual behaviors among adolescents.

In addition to age, other individual differences may contribute to susceptibility to peer influence as well. For example, youth who have a history of being rejected by their peers are more susceptible to later negative peer pressure than are youth who have a history of being accepted by their peers. Youth who have positive, supportive relationships with adults are also less susceptible to influence by their peers than are youth who are not positively connected with adults. Temperamental characteristics, such as the ability to self-regulate, may also contribute to ones susceptibility to peer influence. Research suggests that youth who have already begun to experiment with deviant behaviors are the most susceptible to peer influence toward further deviance. In contrast, youth who are already heavily involved in deviant behavior likely do not need additional peer influence to keep them on this path, and youth who are strongly oriented against deviant behavior may be able to resist negative peer pressure. Social contexts can also alter the extent to which peers exert influence on one another. For example, in social situations that are unstructured and unsupervised by adults, adolescents are more susceptible to peer influence than they are in more structured and supervised contexts.

To summarize, despite the ability of peers to influence one another in negative ways, peers can also influence one another positively. Mechanisms through which peers influence one another include reinforcement, deviancy training, and modeling. Furthermore, not all individuals are equally susceptible to peer influence. This entry has focused on peer influence during adolescence because it is at this age when individuals are the most susceptible to peer influence; however, as Aschs pioneering work demonstrated, peer influence persists into adulthood and can lead individuals to act in ways contrary to how they would be expected to behave in the absence of peers.

SEE ALSO Adolescent Psychology; Asch, Solomon


Asch, Solomon E. 1951. Effects of Group Pressure upon the Modification and Distortion of Judgments. In Groups, Leadership, and Men: Research in Human Relations, ed. Harold Guetzkow, 177190. Pittsburgh, PA: Carnegie Press.

Dishion, Thomas J., Kathleen M. Spracklen, David W. Andrews, and Gerald R. Patterson. 1996. Deviancy Training in Male Adolescents Friendships. Behavior Therapy 27 (3): 373390.

Matsueda, Ross L., and Kathleen Anderson. 1998. The Dynamics of Delinquent Peers and Delinquent Behavior. Criminology 36 (2): 269308.

Pratt, Travis C., and Frances T. Cullen. 2000. The Empirical Status of Gottfredson and Hirschis General Theory of Crime: A Meta-Analysis. Criminology 38 (3): 931964.

Jennifer E. Lansford

Peer Pressure

views updated May 18 2018

Peer Pressure

Why Do People Respond to Peer Pressure?

How Can People Avoid Negative Peer Pressure?


Peer pressure is the feeling that people get from their friends to conform or behave in a certain way.


for searching the Internet and other reference sources

Peer group

Social behavior

Social conformity

A persons friends may dress a certain way, comb their hair in a particular style, and have certain ideas about music and movies. Some teenagers may not share these opinions or adopt these fashions, but they may feel that they should. They may be feeling peer pressure and may think that to fit in they would have to adopt similar values, beliefs, and goals or participate in the same activities as their friends. Peer pressure can affect people of all ages. A 4-year-old who begs for a toy because her friends all have it is experiencing peer pressure. An adult who buys a luxury car because others in the neighborhood have luxury cars is responding to peer pressure. Peer pressure, in itself, is neither good nor bad. It can encourage a person to study hard and get good grades or to skip school, get drunk, or smoke cigarettes. Peer pressure plays a particularly large role in the lives of teenagers.

Heathers (1989) portrays a high school in which three girls, all named Heather, use their status as most popular to manipulate and ridicule other students. Veronica (center, played by Winona Ryder) finds herself caught between the Heathers and a rebellious loner at school who seeks revenge on them. Photofest

In adolescence young people begin to break away from their families and try out different roles and situations to figure out who they are and where they fit into the world. They spend more time with their friends and less time with their families. This is a normal, healthy stage of development, but the growing distance between parents and their children and the increasing importance of friends can be a source of conflict and anger within the family. The desire to feel accepted and to fit in is one of the strongest forces in adolescence. It can lead teens to do things that they know are wrong, dangerous, or risky. On the positive side, pressure to keep up with the peer group can also inspire teens to achieve goals that they might never aim for on their own.

Why Do People Respond to Peer Pressure?

How much a person is influenced by peer pressure depends on many factors. People are less likely to be heavily influenced by their friends and more likely to make their own decisions if they have:

  • high self-esteem
  • goals and a positive outlook on the future
  • good social skills
  • the ability to interact with people from many different backgrounds
  • strong connections to family and community.

People are more likely to be heavily influenced by their peers and less likely to make decisions for themselves if they:

  • have low self-esteem
  • are experiencing problems in their family, such as divorce, alcoholism, drug addiction, or unemployment
  • come from families where there is little support or communication
  • strongly identify with only one ethnic group
  • feel distant from school and community activities
  • are afraid of not belonging or fitting in.

How Can People Avoid Negative Peer Pressure?

Just say no has become a slogan sometimes used to tell youngsters how to respond when they feel pressure to drink or smoke or engage in a harmful activity. Is it a useful strategy to avoid peer pressure? It may be overly simplistic to expect people to reject peer pressure to participate in risky, dangerous, or hurtful behaviors simply by saying no. Different strategies work for different people, but some commonly successful strategies are:

  • finding or inventing a reason to leave the scene
  • treating the suggestion as if it is not serious or making a joke of it
  • getting involved in a new activity with a new group of people
  • getting help from a trusted adult (for example, a coach, counselor, or family member).

Social psychologists have studied peer pressure, examining how it can influence people to change their minds to go along with others opinions. In one study, people consistently changed their answers from what they knew was a correct response to an incorrect response, just because others (who were part of the experiment) gave an incorrect answer. Experiments like these have also shown that people are more likely to stand their ground about what they know is right and stick to their original answers if just one other person joins or agrees with them. Such studies demonstrate that people can more easily resist peer pressure together, and gives new meaning to the conventional wisdom that the friends a person chooses really do matter. The best way for teens, or for that matter people of all ages, to make peer pressure a positive rather than a negative force is to select friends whose values, goals, ambitions, habits, and behaviors they admire and believe are constructive.

See also





Tobacco Addiction



Kaplan, Leslie S. Coping with Peer Pressure. New York: Hazelden/ Rosen, 1997. A book for young adults that offers suggestions on how to keep peer pressure from controlling your life.

Scott, Sharon. How to Say No and Keep Your Friends: Peer Pressure Reversal for Teens and Preteens. Amherst, MA: Human Resource Development Press, 1997.

Spinelli, Jerry. Wringer. New York: HarperCollins, 1998. A fictional story about a preteen boy who faces the prospect of having to do something that appalls him just so that he will fit in.


Nemours Center for Childrens Health Media, A. I. duPont Hospital for Children, 1600 Rockland Road, Wilmington, DE 19803. This organization is dedicated to issues of childrens health. Their website posts articles for children, teens, and parents on peer pressure, friendships, and related topics.

Peer Pressure

views updated May 23 2018

Peer pressure

The influence of the social group on an individual.

Peers are the individuals with whom a child or adolescent identifies, who are usually but not always of the same age-group. Peer pressure occurs when the individual experiences implicit or explicit persuasion, sometimes amounting to coercion, to adopt similar values, beliefs, and goals, or to participate in the same activities as those in the peer group.

Although it is usually conceived of as primarily a negative influence acting on adolescents or teens, peer pressure can be a positive influence as well, and it can act on children at any age, depending on their level of contact with others. The influence of peer pressure is usually addressed in relation to the relative influence of the family on an individual. Some characteristics that peer groups offer and which families may be lacking are:(1) a strong belief structure; (2) a clear system of rules; and (3) communication and discussion about taboo subjects such as drugs, sex, and religion.

Peer pressure is strongly associated with level of academic success, drug and substance use, and gender role conformity . The level of peer influence increases with age, and resistance to peer influence often declines as the child gains independence from the family or caretakers, yet has not fully formed an autonomous identity. One study in particular confirms other research findings that the values of the peer group with whom the high schooler spends the most time are a stronger factor in the student's level of academic success than the values, attitudes, and support provided by the family. Compared to others who started high school with the same grades, students whose families were not especially supportive but who spent time with an academically oriented peer group were successful, while those students whose families stressed academics but who spent time with peers whose orientation was not academic performed less well.

The peer pressure study contradicts prevailing ideas about the influence of families on the success of racial and cultural minorities such as Asians and African Americans. While some Asian families were not especially involved in their children's education, the students, who found little social support of any type, tended to band together in academic study groups. Conversely, African American students, whose families tended to be highly involved in and supportive of education, were subjected to intense peer pressure not to perform academically. According to the study, the African American peer groups associated the activities of studying and spending time at the library with "white" behavior, and adopted the idea that the student who gets good grades, participates in school activities, or speaks Standard English is betraying his racial heritage and community. Consequently, gifted students "dumb-down" as they make the choice between academics and "fitting in." Research suggests that this type of peer pressure contributes to a decline in the grades of African American students (especially males) as early as the first through fourth grades.

Peer pressure similarly compels students of all ethnic backgrounds to engage in other at-risk behaviors such as cigarette smoking, truancy, drug use, sexual activity, fighting, theft, and daredevil stunts. Again, peer group values and attitudes influence, more strongly than do family values, the level of teenage alcohol use. Regardless of the parenting style, peer pressure also influences the degree to which children, especially girls, conform to expected gender roles. Up until about grade six, girls' performance in science and math are on par with that of boys, but during adolescence girls' test scores and level of expressed interest declines. The tendency is to abandon competition with boys in favor of placing more emphasis on relationships and on physical appearance.

Ideally the child, adolescent, or teen should make decisions based on a combination of values internalized from the family, values derived from thinking independently, and values derived from friends and other role models. In order to achieve this balance, rather than attempting to minimize peer influence, families and schools must provide strong alternative beliefs, patterns of behavior, and encourage formation of peer groups that engage in positive academic, athletic, artistic, and social activities.

Hallie Bourne

Further Reading

Bernard, B. The Case for Peers. Portland, OR: Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, 1990.

Feller, Robyn M. Everything You Need to Know About Peer Pressure. New York: Rosen Publishing Group, 1995.

Juvonen, Jaana, and Kathryn R. Wentzel, eds. Social Motivation: Understanding Children's School Adjustment. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Myrick, R.D. and D.L. Sorenson. Peer Helping: A Practical Guide. Minneapolis, MN: Educational Media Corporation, 1988.