Study investigates why adolescents respond differently to peer influence

Published: Wednesday, September 28, 2011 - 15:39 in Psychology & Sociology

The company an adolescent keeps affects his or her behavior -- particularly when these friends engage in illicit activities and are indifferent to education -- right? Well, that all depends, according to a new Northwestern University study, "Being in 'Bad' Company: Power Dependence and Status in Adolescent Susceptibility to Peer Influence," which appears in the September issue of Social Psychology Quarterly.

The research, conducted in a primarily Hispanic, low-income neighborhood, looked at academically diverse groups of friends that included both high- and low-achieving young adults.

According to the study, some adolescents in the mixed groups were insulated from the influence of their more self destructive peers. "Opposite to what a lot of researchers think would happen, some kids in the groups, for example, neglected or didn't even care about school, while others were dedicated students," said Robert Vargas, a doctoral student in sociology at Northwestern and author of the study.

Interestingly, Vargas found that adolescents could also be insulated from the positive influence of their peers.

Adolescents in his study were insulated if they had characteristics that their friends respected (e.g., close friendships with members of the opposite sex) or had something that their friends needed (e.g., a car).

Among those adolescents who were negatively influenced by peers, neighborhood violence and territorial boundaries were likely to be part of the dynamics contributing to their bad behavior, Vargas said.

"It wasn't that these kids thought the bad behavior was 'cool,' but rather neighborhood violence constrained their friendship choices," he said.

In the neighborhood where Vargas conducted his research, the territorial border of the major gangs in the neighborhood made it difficult for kids to walk to a friend's house who lived on "the other side" of the neighborhood.

"The young gang members in the neighborhood were very territorial and would attack young people perceived to be in the rival gang when they crossed the border," he said. "Those fearful of being caught in the crossfire tended to avoid crossing the gang boundary, greatly restricting access to certain, possibly more positive, friends."

Young adults from such neighborhoods often don't have the power to find other friends or leave their friendship groups to avoid negative peer pressure. "The effects of neighborhood violence and fears of crossing gang boundaries influences these young people to hang out with people they otherwise would avoid," Vargas said.

In terms of policy implications, Vargas said, "The study demonstrates the need for policymakers and educators to move beyond public campaigns that convey to adolescents that undesirable acts are 'not cool,' and consider factors that make adolescents dependent on friends or adults. As adolescents were influenced by individuals they depended on most, policymakers and educators should consider trying to make young people more dependent on positive role models by, for example, requiring community service hours."

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Source: American Sociological Association


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