Speaking of Psychology: The good and bad of peer pressure

Episode 2

When a school year begins, students are dealing with new classes, sports and other school-related activities. Most students will also face the challenges of peer pressure. Psychologist Brett Laursen, PhD, talks about the science behind peer pressure and what parents can do to help their kids.

About the expert: Brett Laursen, PhD

Brett Laursen, PhDBrett Laursen, PhD, is a fellow of the American Psychological Association and professor of psychology at Florida Atlantic University, where his research focuses on how children’s interactions with peers and parents influence their social and academic lives. Laursen also serves as docent professor of social developmental psychology at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland.

Transcript

Audrey Hamilton: When a new school year begins, students are dealing with classes, sports and other extra-curricular activities. Most students will also face an entirely different set of challenges with peer pressure. Parents may notice a change in how their child dresses or behaves at home. How much of this is related to their friends' influence and how should parents address peer pressure with their children. In this podcast, we talk with a psychologist who looks at the science behind peer pressure, both the good and the bad.

Brett Laursen is a professor of psychology at Florida Atlantic University, where his research focuses on how children and teens interact with their peers and parents. Specifically, he studies how these relationships affect their social lives and academics. Dr. Laursen is a fellow of the American Psychological Association. Welcome.

Brett Laursen: Thanks. It's a pleasure to speak with you.

Audrey Hamilton: When does peer pressure typically begin to occur in children's lives and what impact does it have on child and adolescent development?

Brett Laursen: Before we tackle that question, I think it's important to define peer pressure. If we define peer- pressure as essentially, influence, then I think we can see that peer pressure begins very early on. But, it's not often the way that parents and adults think of it. You have explicit peer pressure and you have implicit peer pressure. So, let me give you an example. I know of a young man who just started middle school and started it with long hair and a couple of months into middle school he got his hair cut very short. This could have been because somebody made fun of his long hair. That would be the explicit form of peer pressure. But, it could also be very implicit. He could have wanted to fit in. He could have been eager to make new friends, other kids with short hair who didn't want them to be off put by his long hair. He could have thought this was some form of status – that people with short hair appear to have more status than people with long hair. We don't know, in this particular instance and we often don't really know exactly if it's one or the other and typically, it's probably a combination of things. So, when we think about peer pressure, we're really talking about influence to behave differently, that's exerted by peers.

So, when does it begin?

It begins as soon as children start to pay attention to what other children think about them. So, we can see peer influence in the very early grade school years. We see it over behavior problems where one set of peers will influence another to act badly. We also see it over academic achievement where friends do better when they're paired with other kids who are doing better in school. We see this as early as first grade. Our data in both Finland and the U.S. suggest that these influences happen with very young children.

Audrey Hamilton: Why are some children and teens more susceptible to peer pressure than others? You see some kids that generally seem to just do their own thing and not care what other children think of them, but that's not always the case and why are some of them more susceptible to that?

Brett Laursen: We're still working to disentangle the notion of susceptibility from the notion of being really influential. So, on the one hand, there are some children who are susceptible to influence from anyone – that is to say that whatever comes down the pike they're likely to follow. But, it's also the case that some people are more influential and so, if you hang around with people who tend to be particularly influential, you will look susceptible even though you're not particularly susceptible. It just happens to be that you're hanging around with others who are highly influential.

So, I'll try to address that question, but I want to put that big caveat out there first because if you're hanging around with somebody who's very persuasive and who has a lot of social skills, you may look susceptible when in fact you're not particularly susceptible to other people. It just has to do with those that you spend your time with. So, we know that susceptibility is greater for children who don't have a lot of friends. They want to protect the friendships that they have, and so they're more likely to do what their friends say because they're worried about losing their friends and have difficulty making others. Younger children who hang around with older children are susceptible to influence. Paradoxically, being popular may make you susceptible to influence. This one is a little bit up in the air, but it may be that popular kids in some domains worry about protecting their status and so, they're more likely to be influenced to be seen doing things that they should be seen doing even if they don't want to do them because otherwise they fear their status will diminish in the eyes of their peers.

Audrey Hamilton: What about any difference between boys and girls when it comes to peer pressure?

Brett Laursen: We don't have firm evidence on this but I can tell you this much is for sure. Boys spend much more time in groups than girls whereas girls spend their time; tend to spend their time in friendship dyads. And so, the influence that boys receive is much more likely to be concerned with fitting into the group as a whole. And so, boys need the approval of a larger group of peers whereas girls are much more focused on getting along with one or another particular individual. And so, we probably are going to see more individual influence on girls whereas boys are going to be more apt to be susceptible to forces from the group, as a whole.

Audrey Hamilton: And I'm sure there are some parents that are listening to this wondering what can they do to help children recognize and deal appropriately with peer pressure?

Brett Laursen: It's a good question. The first thing I think that parents can do is that they can help children recognize that attempts to influence them are everywhere. You can't turn around without somebody attempting to influence you. They want you to eat this or buy that or watch this or listen to that. So one of the first things we can do is we can help children understand that our culture is full of influence attempts and peers are just another set of forces that are vying for our attention and are vying to shape our behavior. So once children start to see that there are these influences everywhere, that's really the first step of the process. So, you recognize when there are influence attempts going on and you can start to label them and recognize them and label them and recognize them and children become more adept at recognizing and labeling them and identifying them, then you can start to talk with them about is that the kind of influence you want to be shaped by. Is that something that you want to be susceptible to? And if not, we start to talk about how we might resist that influence. But, it's much easier to resist influence if you've thought about your strategy beforehand. It's a teen going to a party and there's going to be somebody drinking there. Is that something that you want to resist or not? Certainly, you want to tell your teen that what are your strategies for if the person who was driving decides to drink? What are your strategies for not getting in the car? What is your strategy for finding a way home that won't involve driving with somebody who has been drinking? So, recognizing that there's influence out there, and it's not necessarily over influence. There's going to be a lot of covert, of implicit influence and that influence is just the same as all the other influence and children need to be sensitive to that.

Parents can serve as a buffer against peer-influence. We know that children who have good relations with their parents feel that they have less of a need to please their friends. So, I'll give you an example of one set of research findings that we have from work that we have done in Sweden.

Children who have friends who are really burned out on school – who report that they are tired of school – if your friend is a high burnout on school, then you're much more likely to feel less interested in school. School engagement is going to drop over the course of a year unless you report really strong relations with your parents. And so having a good relationship with your parents is going to buffer you against this adverse peer influence.

Audrey Hamilton: Some of what you're talking about – a lot of what you're talking about is negative peer-influence, but some of your research has looked at how peer-influence can be a positive factor in a child's life. What are some examples of that and what can children and teenagers do to develop these kinds of relationships?
Brett Laursen: Well, if you think about it logically, it can't possibly be the case that all peer influence is bad or else children would all, inevitably end up as juvenile delinquents because influence would be negative and more negative and more negative and everyone would be susceptible to it. So, there has to be, there has to be some area of push back. There has to be some area where peers are good. We know that kids are going to be influenced for better or for worse by whoever is the more influential partner. So, if we take two friends out and we know that one is particularly influential – let's say the one who has more friend options or the one who is older or the one who is doing better in school or the one who is more attractive – whatever – the one who is more influential is going to set the tone for the influence. So, if the one who is more influential doesn't like to drink, then we have data that suggests that actually teens desist from alcohol consumption. That the lower, the less influential member of the group is going to desist from drinking because they want to be more like the more influential one. We see the same thing that the levels of delinquency will go down, as well. So it all depends on the characteristics of the more influential partner and the same is true in a group. The group leaders. So, the more the group leaders have a positive agenda, the more that other children are more likely to be influenced by that positive agenda. So, if you belong to a group where everyone is physically active, you're going to be physically active. There's a big "except" for this. Except for if you really don't want to do this, then you're likely to drop out of that group or not be friends with those particular individuals anymore. You are going to go and select people who are more like you and under those circumstances, when children are de-selected from groups or drop out of friendships, then they go and look for kids who have more similar levels of perhaps drinking or deviance and then they may be inclined to be influenced in a different direction.

Audrey Hamilton: Does peer pressure follow people into adulthood or is there a point in life when it becomes less of a factor?

Brett Laursen: For sure, peer pressure follows people across their whole life course. But, you're going to receive in different ways from different people. So, are adults susceptible to peer pressure? I think the answer is, of course! Last night, I went to back to school night for my children and I was very impressed by the whole string of SUV's that arrived and out of the SUV's got moms with very similar haircuts and very similar length of heels and dads who all look like they have gone shopping at the same place who differed only in terms of whether or not they wore a tie.

Audrey Hamilton: Right. All had the smartphones.

Brett Laursen: There's no question that we're susceptible to peer-influence and this proceeds across the course of our life. As we get older, we form romantic relationships and we get married, then different peers influence us. But, it's still peer influence, nevertheless.

Audrey Hamilton: Yeah, well great. Thank you so much for joining us, Dr. Laursen.

Brett Laursen: Pleasure was mine. Thank you.

Audrey Hamilton: For more information, please visit our website. Thank you for joining us. I'm Audrey Hamilton with the American Psychological Association's "Speaking of Psychology."