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Repurposing Peer Pressure

Posted By Amanda Leaman, Thursday, October 9, 2014
Updated: Thursday, October 9, 2014

Repurposing Popular Student Peer Pressure

Kids most susceptible to peer influence follow the example especially of those they consider popular. Can we use "popular" students more effectively as character models?

We've long known about peer pressure, but increasing light is shining on the value of peers that model, and establish, what "normal" behavior is--or should be--at school. In January (2014), the Simply Solid Strategies issue on honor and academic integrity noted that "students are less likely to cheat when they perceive that cheating does not happen regularly among their peers." Yes, when kids believe "everyone is cheating," they themselves are more inclined to cheat. But it's not just about cheating.

Last month's issue of Developmental Psychology reported an insightful study on how high school sexual behavior is similarly influenced by what students perceive to be the "normal" behavior among peers (Choukas-Bradley et al., 2014).

What's most important about this study, though, is that the actions of kids perceived as "popular" are discovered to be much more influential than what just "other kids" are doing.

An equally important, related finding: kids who are least secure in themselves and most susceptible to peer influence (even when not directly pressured), are especially prone to emulate the believed behavior of these peers. So what the popular kids are doing is not necessarily the issue, but rather what socially insecure students think the popular kids are doing.

For the study, ninth-grade students were surveyed over an 18 month period from the perspective of three factors: 1) their susceptibility to peer pressure (via an independent measure) 2) their perceptions of the number of sexual partners the peers considered "popular" had had (the number was manipulated via an experimentally controlled computer "chat room"), and 3) the number of sexual partners the ninth-graders in question ended up having over a series of six-month periods.

Over the course of the assessment period, not all students who believed the popular kids were engaging in more sexual behavior actually engaged in more sexual encounters themselves. However, those kids who a) were less secure in their ability to resist pressures to conform, and b) believed that the popular kids had a great number of sexual partners, did indeed engage in more sexual behavior. In other words, the less secure about his or her own sense of self a student was, the more he or she tended to follow suit to the perceived actions of the popular kids.

Now what?
There are at least three important takeaways from this finding, certainly in the domain of sexual behavior, apparently also in the area of cheating and academic integrity, and thus possibly also in other areas of student interactions. The first has two parts to it, and concerns when sharing numerical details with students is most, and least, effective. What to do depends on what we know about actual student behaviors, and what kids perceive about the prevalence of these behaviors.

Assess the numbers
• When incidence of undesirable behaviors is low, we would do well to let students know how low it is. In doing so, we help students understand—possibly contrary to their beliefs—that what they are hearing about is far from the norm. In this case, most students are not doing it.

However, when we know incidence of undesirable behaviors is high, we may do better to address the behaviors in ways other than sharing specific numbers that illustrate a prevalence.

Enlist popular students as models
Modeling is powerful and, happily, the modeling of positive behaviors may have greater effect than modeling of negative behaviors. We get the most out of our efforts if those that are perceived to be the most popular students help spread the word about laudable behaviors—and if they model them, too.

Work on skills with those most susceptible to peer influence
What this study demonstrates (the findings are consistent with what we’ve known in regard to cheating) is that those who are least secure in their social standing are most easily influenced to follow the perceived leader. We would thus do well to teach the skills of independent thinking and resistance to pressure, when we know who these students are. Ideally, can we find ways to have more popular students model these refusal skills for their peers, rather than just going over the skills in class?


Chouckas-Bradley, S., Giletta, M., Widman, L, Cohen, G.L., & Prinstein, M.J. (2014) Experimentally measured susceptibility to peer influence and adolescent sexual behavior trajectories: A preliminary study. Developmental Psychology, 50, 9, 2221-2227.


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