Peer Effects

views updated

Peer Effects


Although researchers have studied childrens peer relationships since the 1930s (Ladd 2005), the end of the twentieth century marked a flurry of psychological inquiry into the impact of peers on development and behavior. Traditionally, adults, especially parents, were considered the primary socializers, responsible for assimilating the child into society. However, according to developmentalists like Jean Piaget and Willard Hartup, children grow up in two distinct social worlds characterized by different types of relationshipsthe world of adults and the world of peers. Adult-child relationships are hierarchical, with power residing largely with the adult, whose greater experience and knowledge are essential for socializing the child as a new member of society. Yet peer relationships are also critical, though organized quite differently. Contemporary peer relationships are between age-mates of roughly equal power, operating at similar developmental levels, both cognitively and physically. The egalitarian nature of peer relationships makes them unique contexts for developing skills like negotiation, perspective-taking, cooperation, problem solving, and so on.

Peers can serve as socializers in the absence of adults, as shown in Anna Freud and Sophie Danns (1951) studies of peer rearing among children during World War II (19391945) and in Stephen Suomi and Harry Harlows (e.g., 1972) studies of nonhuman primates. Even when adults are available, however, peer influences are now understood to be significant. Judith Rich Harris has questioned traditional notions of the socialization process, emphasizing the impact of peers and community in her group socialization theory (GST). Using behavioral genetics research that attempts to specify the relative influence of hereditary versus environmental influences, Harris points out that about 40 to 50 percent of ones personality is attributable to genetics, but only 10 percent or less can be attributed to family and parenting factors, leaving about 40 percent to environmental influences that are unique to each individual. Harris proposes that the peer group is a significant contributor here, challenging us to consider socialization forces beyond the family.

In understanding peer effects, researchers like Wyndol Furman and Philip Robbins (1985) distinguish between the role of dyadic friendships, which fulfill ones need for intimacy, affection, and reliable alliance, and relations within the peer group, which meet ones need to belong in a larger social context. Both friendships and peer group acceptance contribute to development across the life span, though their impact may differ. For example, Catherine Bagwell, Andrew Newcomb, and William Bukowski (1998) found that childrens friendships were associated with better attitudes toward family relationships, greater self-esteem, and lower risk for depression more than a decade later in early adulthood. Being accepted by the peer group also predicted later adjustment associated with higher educational aspirations, better school performance, and job success.

At the dyad level, research by Hartup and others has shown that children and adolescents who have friends are more socially competent, report more positive well-being, and exhibit fewer psychosocial problems than children without friends. Having friends seems particularly important in school adjustment, as the presence of friends facilitates initial school entry (Ladd 1990), helps students navigate later academic transitions (e.g., Berndt et al. 1999; McDougall and Hymel 1998), and impacts students school engagement and motivation (e.g., Kinderman et al. 1996; Ryan 2000).

The impact of friends can be positive or negative, depending on who those friends are, or rather how they behave. Young people whose friends exhibit antisocial or problem behavior are far more likely to exhibit negative behaviors themselves (e.g., Brendgen et al. 2000). Thomas Dishion and colleagues (1999) have shown that peer deviancy training happens subtly, not just through modeling, but through conversational and behavioral rewards (e.g., laughing when peers describe deviant acts they committed). For children who are already at risk for antisocial behavior due to socioeconomic disadvantage or poor family functioning, the likelihood of going down this path appears to be increased by association with deviant friends (e.g., Ary et al. 1999; Fergusson et al. 1999; Kim et al. 1999). In addition, research by Frank Vitaro and colleagues (e.g., 2001) shows that the success of interventions for high-risk youth is enhanced by less association with deviant peers and more association with nondeviant peers who provide alternative role models and support socially acceptable behavior.

In understanding peer effects, it is important to move beyond popular thinking about peer pressure as stemming from power based on coercion (e.g., threat of punishment for noncompliance) or rewards (e.g., influencing behavior by controlling rewards). Peer influences can also be indirect, based on referent power (French and Raven 1959), affecting young peoples attitudes and behaviors simply because others admire them and want to be like them or affiliated with them. As Harris suggests, peers do not just push; they also pull.

Perhaps the strongest evidence for peer effects comes from research on peer rejection. Since the 1930s, studies have compared individuals who experience good peer relations with those who are disliked or rejected by peers. This research shows that peer rejection predicts later maladjustment in academic (e.g., poor achievement, school dropout), externalizing (e.g., aggression, criminality), and internalizing (e.g., loneliness, depression) realms (McDougall et al. 2001). To explain the effects of peer rejection, Jeffrey Parker and Steven Asher (1987; see also Parker et al. 1995) propose that deviant social behaviors (e.g., aggression, social withdrawal) often lead to peer difficulties and peer rejection, which in turn places a child at serious risk for a host of poor adjustment outcomes, not only because of opportunities for peer-deviancy training, but also because of missed positive peer-socialization experiences that promote healthy development.

Peer group rejection has also been linked to both poor achievement and school dropout (see Juvonen and Wentzel 1996; McDougall et al. 2001), although the process begins in the early years of school. When Eric Buhs, Gary Ladd, and Susan Herald (2006) followed children through elementary school, they found that early peer rejection affected later school engagement and, in turn, achievement. Children rejected in kindergarten were more likely to avoid school and participated less in class over time, but the outcome depended on the peer treatment received. Rejected children who were abused by their peers were more likely to avoid school. Those who were excluded by peers were less likely to participate, which in turn lead to lower achievement. A critical challenge for educators (see CASEL) as well as parents (see Rubin 2002) is to recognize the interface of peer relationships on academic and life success.

SEE ALSO Achievement; Adolescent Psychology; Child Development; Depression, Psychological; Deviance; Friendship; Loneliness; Piaget, Jean; Schooling; Social Isolation; Socialization


Ary, Dennis, Terry Duncan, Susan Duncan, and Hyman Hops. 1999. Adolescent Problem Behavior: The Influence of Parents and Peers. Behavior Research and Therapy 37: 217230.

Bagwell, Catherine, Andrew F. Newcomb, and William M. Bukowski. 1998. Preadolescent Friendship and Peer Rejection as Predictors of Adult Adjustment. Child Development 69: 140153.

Berndt, Thomas J., Jacquelyn A. Hawkins, and Ziyi Jiao. 1999. Influences of Friends and Friendships on Adjustment to Junior High School. Merrill Palmer Quarterly 45: 1341.

Brendgen, Mara, Frank Vitaro, and William Bukowski. 2000. Stability and Variability of Adolescents Affiliation with Delinquent Friends: Predictors and Consequences. Social Development 9: 205225.

Buhs, Eric S., Gary W. Ladd, and Susan L. Herald. 2006. Peer Exclusion and Victimization: Processes that Mediate the Relation between Peer Group Rejection and Childrens Classroom Engagement and Achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology 98 (1): 113.

CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning).

Deater-Deckard, Kirby. 2001. Annotation: Recent Research Examining the Role of Peer Relationships in the Development of Psychopathology. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 42: 565571.

Dishion, Thomas J. 1990. The Peer Context of Troublesome Child and Adolescent Behavior. In Understanding Troubled and Troubling Youth: Multiple Perspectives, ed. Peter Leone, 128153. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Dishion, Thomas J., Joan McCord, and François Poulin. 1999. When Interventions Harm: Peer Groups and Problem Behavior. American Psychologist 54: 755764.

Fergusson, David M., Lianne J. Woodward, and John Horwood. 1999. Childhood Peer Relationship Problems and Young Peoples Involvement with Deviant Peers in Adolescence. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology 27: 357369.

French, John R. P., and Bertram Raven. 1959. The Bases of Social Power. In Studies in Social Power, ed. Dorwin Cartwright, 150167. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Freud, Anna, and Dann, Sophie. 1951. An Experiment in Group Upbringing. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child 6: 127168.

Furman, Wyndol, and Philip Robbins. 1985. Whats the Point? Issues in the Selection of Treatment Objectives. In Childrens Peer Relations: Issues in Assessment and Intervention, ed. Barry Schneider, Kenneth H. Rubin, and Jane E. Ledingham, 4154. New York: Springer-Verlag.

Harris, Judith Rich. 1995. Where Is the Childs Environment? A Group Socialization Theory of Development. Psychological Review 102: 458489.

Harris, Judith Rich. 1998. The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do. New York: Free Press.

Harris, Judith Rich. 2006. No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality. New York: Free Press.

Hartup, Willard W. 1999. Peer Experience and Its Developmental Significance. In Developmental Psychology: Achievements and Prospects, ed. Mark Bennett, 106125. Philadelphia: Psychology Press.

Hartup, Willard W., and Nan Stevens. 1997. Friendships and Adaptation in the Life Course. Psychological Bulletin 119: 355370.

Juvonen, Jaana, and Kathryn R. Wentzel. 1996. Social Motivation: Understanding Childrens School Adjustment. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Kim, Jungmeen E., E. Mavis Hetherington, and David Reiss. 1999. Associations among Family Relationships, Antisocial Peers, and Adolescents Externalizing Behaviors: Gender and Family Type Differences. Child Development 70: 12091230.

Kinderman, Thomas A., Tanya L. McCollam, and Ellsworth Gibson Jr. 1996. Peer Networks and Students Classroom Engagement During Childhood and Adolescence. In Social Motivation: Understanding Childrens School Adjustment, ed. Janna Juvonen and Kathryn R. Wentzel, 279312. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Ladd, Gary W. 1990. Having Friends, Making Friends, Keeping Friends, and Being Liked by Peers in the Classroom: Predictors of Early School Adjustment? Child Development 61: 10811100.

Ladd, Gary W. 2005. Childrens Peer Relations and Social Competence: A Century of Progress. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

McDougall, Patricia, and Shelley Hymel. 1998. Moving into Middle School: Individual Differences in the Transition Experience. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science 30: 108120.

McDougall, Patricia, Shelley Hymel, Tracy Vaillancourt, and Louise Mercer. 2001. The Consequences of Early Childhood Rejection. In Interpersonal Rejection, ed. Mark Leary, 213247. New York: Oxford University Press.

Parker, Jeffrey, and Steven Asher. 1987. Peer Relations and Later Personal Adjustment: Are Low-accepted Children at Risk? Psychological Bulletin 102: 357389.

Parker, Jeffrey, Kenneth H. Rubin, Joseph Price, and Melissa E. DeRosier. 1995. Peer Relationships, Child Development, and Adjustment: A Developmental Psychopathology Perspective. In Developmental Psychopathology, Vol. 2: Risk, Disorder, and Adaptation, ed. Dante Cicchette and Donald Cohen, 96161. New York: Wiley.

Piaget, Jean. 1932. The Moral Judgment of the Child. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

Rubin, Kenneth H., William M. Bukowski, and Jeffrey G. Parker. 1998. Peer Interactions, Relationships, and Groups. In Handbook of Child Psychology, ed. William Damon. 5th ed. Vol. 3: Social Emotional and Personality Development, ed. Nancy Eisenberg, 619700. New York: Wiley.

Rubin, Kenneth H., with Andrea Thompson. 2002. The Friendship Factor: Helping Our Children Navigate Their Social World and Why It Matters to Their Success and Happiness. New York: Penguin.

Ryan, Allison M. 2000. Peer Groups as a Context for the Socialization of Adolescents Motivation, Engagement, and Achievement in School. Educational Psychologist 35 (2): 101111.

Smith, Peter, and Craig Hart. 2002. Blackwell Handbook of Childhood Social Development. London: Blackwell.

Suomi, Stephen J., and Harry F. Harlow. 1972. Social Rehabilitation of Isolate-reared Monkeys. Developmental Psychology 6: 487496.

Vitaro, Frank, Mara Brendgen, and Richard E. Tremblay. 2001. Preventive Intervention: Assessing Its Effects on the Trajectories of Delinquency and Testing for Mediational Processes. Applied Developmental Science 5 (4): 201213.

Shelley Hymel

Patricia McDougall

Tracy Vaillancourt