School & District Management

Teenagers Are Wired for Peer Approval, Study Says

By Sarah D. Sparks — May 21, 2013 4 min read

It’s true: Adolescents really do want to jump off a bridge just because their friends are doing it. But new research suggests changes in how teenagers view risks and rewards around their peers are not only a critical part of their development, but may also provide a key to motivating them.

From the DARE anti-drug program to abstinence-only curricula, education has been full of high-profile attempts to curtail risky behavior that have met with mixed success at best. The emerging evidence suggests, however, that changing teenagers’ behavior demands accounting for their social circles, not just asking them to stand up to their peers.

In an ongoing series of studies, Temple University researchers Laurence Steinberg and Jason M. Chein and their colleagues have found that teenagers take more risks and are more sensitive to potential rewards when they think peers are watching them—even if they consciously believe they aren’t affected by peer pressure.

“Although it’s very, very tempting to assign consciousness to teenagers’ motivations and behavior—to say they are doing something because ‘they don’t understand the consequences,’ ‘they think they are invincible,’ ‘they want to impress their friends'—what we think we’re finding is [risk-taking] has a much more biological basis to it,” said Mr. Chein, the director of Temple University’s Neurocognition Lab.

In studies discussed in the April special issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science on “the teenage brain,” the Temple researchers found 14- to 16-year-olds take significantly more risks, and are more responsive to potential rewards, when other teenagers are around than when they are by themselves.

“In the same way a young child is developing in the context of her family environment, a middle schooler and high schooler is developing in the context of peers,” said Kevin M. King, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle, who was not part of the Temple research.

“There are huge changes in the social environment,” he said. "[Adolescents] are going from one classroom to many, from parents’ making all the early friendship choices to making [their] own.”

Focused on Rewards

And that new freedom to make their own choices comes just when students start taking more risks in the company of peers.

Mr. Steinberg, a psychology professor at Temple, and Mr. Chein presented study participants with a game in which a player was shown a card labeled with a number between one and nine, and had to guess whether the next card would be higher or lower, with players told before some rounds that they would receive a reward or no reward for a correct guess.

The game was rigged: A computer randomly ensured each player guessed right exactly half the time. The participants played under functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, which measures electrical activity in the brain, allowing the researchers to gauge how much players were responding to the possibility of rewards.

Both adults and adolescents had more brain activity for a potential reward than for none, but teenagers showed significantly higher response to potential rewards when they were told (untruthfully) that another teenager was watching from another room. Adults, by contrast, showed no change when told of being watched.

The findings build on a 2009 study by Mr. Steinberg that found, among 14- to 16-year-olds, younger teenagers took twice as many risks in a timed driving simulation when with peers than when tested alone. Older teenagers took 50 percent more risks when doing the simulation course with friends than alone.

Channeling Peer Power

In a study of binge drinking, Mr. King found adolescents who are deciding to drink weigh negative effects such as having a hangover or getting in a fight less than they weigh perceived social benefits, such as increased confidence and the ability to speak with others.

Both the Temple and University of Washington researchers are separately exploring interventions to help teenagers take a step back mentally in social situations, turning an emotional decision into a more rational one.

Mr. Steinberg’s previous studies have found that teenagers do fine on tasks that require just attention and working memory when their peers are around, as long as they don’t involve risk and reward. Fifteen-year-olds were better at basic inhibitory-control tasks than 10-year-olds, and less adept than adults, while teenagers are more sensitive to risk and reward than either children or adults.

For interventions to stop risky behavior, Mr. Chein said, “it’s not that you are trying to convince the individual that they shouldn’t be influenced by their peers; they’re not aware at a conscious level of the impact peers are having on them.” Rather than focus on preventing adolescents from doing bad things, Mr. Chein suggested that educators focus on leveraging positive peer pressure: “When adolescents are with their peers, they’re more likely to pursue rewards, and those can be academic rewards.”

Programs that give students “social rewards,” such as leadership opportunities and chances to meet other students in ways that improve their social status—such as peer-discipline courts—can channel adolescents’ natural inclinations positively, researchers have found.

Related Tags:

A version of this article appeared in the May 22, 2013 edition of Education Week as Study: Teenagers’ Brains Are Wired for Peer Approval

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Making Digital Literacy a Priority: An Administrator’s Perspective
Join us as we delve into the efforts of our panelists and their initiatives to make digital skills a “must have” for their district. We’ll discuss with district leadership how they have kept digital literacy
Content provided by Learning.com
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
How Schools Can Implement Safe In-Person Learning
In order for in-person schooling to resume, it will be necessary to instill a sense of confidence that it is safe to return. BD is hosting a virtual panel discussing the benefits of asymptomatic screening
Content provided by BD
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
How Districts Are Centering Relationships and Systemic SEL for Back to School 21-22
As educators and leaders consider how SEL fits into their reopening and back-to-school plans, it must go beyond an SEL curriculum. SEL is part of who we are as educators and students, as well as
Content provided by Panorama Education

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Opinion 42 Percent of Principals Want to Leave Their Position. Will You Let Them?
There are specific reasons leaders cite for reasons they want to leave their positions. What can we do about it? Do we care?
7 min read
42% of Principals are considering leaving their position. Are you one of them?
42% of Principals are considering leaving their position. Are you one of them?
Shutterstock
School & District Management Is the Assistant Principal the Most Overlooked, Undervalued Person at School?
A new research review on assistant principals finds that the role is undefined and that support for these school leaders is inconsistent.
7 min read
 teachers and leaders looking around for direction
Mykyta Dolmatov/iStock/Getty Images Plus
School & District Management Opinion Pandemic Recovery Will Be Complex. We’ll Need the Best School Leaders
To face the education challenges of today and tomorrow, we must invest in the principal pipeline, writes Michael J. Petrilli.
Michael J. Petrilli
4 min read
Leader pointing hand forward, directing boat forward through corona virus crisis
iStock / Getty Images Plus
School & District Management Opinion The Year of Scourges: How I Survived Illness and Racism to Find My 'Tribe'
A Black school leader reflects on the hardest year of her professional life.
Reba Y. Hodge
4 min read
new growth on a bare tree
Vanessa Solis/Education Week & Getty Images