Susceptibility to Peer Influences (Psychosocial Development)
The following four studies speak to the important role peers play in adolescents’ poor judgment and risky behaviors. Such evidence helps to explain why adolescents, more so than adults, commit crimes in groups. This is a critical psychosocial characteristic of youth to consider, particularly when we think about issues of mitigation and culpability. Highlighting how a youth may have been influenced by peers involved in the same incident may be critical for mitigating a client’s behavior.
Margo Gardner & Laurence Steinberg, Peer Influence on Risk Taking, Risk Preference, and Risky Decision Making in Adolescence and Adulthood: An Experimental Study, 41 Developmental Psychol. 625 (2005).
- To investigate the influence of peers on risk-taking and risky decision-making in adolescents and adults.
- An experimental study conducted in a laboratory setting with a sample of 306 individuals recruited from both the community and from an undergraduate university. Participants consisted of three groups: a) adolescents ages 13 to 16 years old; b) youth ages 18 to 22 years old; and c) adults ages 24 and older.
- Researchers used self-report questionnaires and a behavioral task to assess risky decision-making and risk-taking.
- For the behavioral task, researchers used a simulated driving task on the computer to assess participants’s risky decision-making. Participants had to decide whether or not to break as they approached a changing stoplight. The time it took the light to change from yellow to green varied, and so did the probability of crashing in the intersection.
- Individuals in middle and late adolescence were much more likely than adults to take more risks and engage in riskier decision-making when tested in groups than when tested alone.
- Demonstrates that adolescents are more susceptible to the influence of their peers than adults, particularly when engaging in risky behavior and/or risky decision-making.
- To test the hypothesis that adolescents’s preferences for immediate rewards, versus delayed rewards, increases in the presence of peers.
- To investigate the mechanism underlying the influence of peers on risky decision-making. The authors propose that the presence of peers increases adolescents’s sensitivity to the immediate rewards of a risky decision.
- An experimental study conducted in a laboratory setting with a sample of 100 participants, ages 18 through 20.
- Participants were recruited from a college campus.
- Participants were asked to bring two friends with them to the study, and were randomly assigned to a group or alone condition.
- Participants were administered a delay-discounting task on the computer.
- The delay-discounting task required participants to choose between smaller immediate rewards (e.g. US $200 today) or larger delayed reward (e.g. US $1000 in six months).
- “Discount” refers to the extent to which participants discount the larger reward, due to the delay in receiving the larger reward.
- Participants who were in the presence of their peers were more likely than when alone to: (1) Prefer immediate rather than delayed rewards and (2) Discount the value of delayed rewards.
- Researchers compared the results of the present study with a study conducted by Laurence Steinberg and colleagues (2009) (see summary on Future Orientation) that used the same delay-discounting task. In the Steinberg and colleagues study, the results of youth age 14 to 15 that did the discounting task alone paralleled the results of 18- to 20-year-olds who completed the task in the presence of peers. Thus, even 18- to 20-year-olds may make immature decisions that resemble 14- to 15-year-olds when they are in the presence of peers.
- Results suggest that an adolescent tendency towards riskier decision-making in the presence of peers is due to a shift in “reward processing.” Youth tend to value more the immediate rewards of a risky decision (e.g. unprotected sex) than considering the long-term consequences of such a decision (e.g. disease or pregnancy).
- To explore a possible explanation for why peers influence adolescent risk-taking by using fMRI equipment to study brain activity while completing a risk-taking task in the presence of peers.
- Researchers were interested in whether the presence of peers activates regions of the brain differently for adolescents than for adults.
- The two brain systems thought to be involved in risky decision-making are the cognitive control system and the incentive processing/socio-emotional system.
- The cognitive control system of the brain is related to impulse control, as well as better reasoning and planning.
- The incentive processing/socio-emotional system of the brain is associated with the processing of rewards and punishments, as well as emotions and social information.
- Adolescence is thought to be a time when the incentive processing/socio-emotional system of the brain is easily aroused and highly sensitive to social feedback, while the cognitive control system is still immature and developing.
- An experimental study conducted in a laboratory setting with: 40 participants age 14 to 18 years old; 14 participants age 19 to 22 years old; and 12 participants age 24 to 29 years old.
- Researchers used a simulated driving task on the computer to assess participants’ risky decision-making. Participants had to decide whether or not to break as they approached a changing stoplight. The time it took the light to change from yellow to green varied, and so did the probability of crashing in the intersection.
- While completing the computer driving task, brain activity was assessed using MRI technology.
- One group of participants completed the driving task with no peers present. A second group of participants were told that their peers were observing them from a monitor in another room. These observers were allowed to communicate periodically with participants over an intercom. The observers were instructed to let participants know that they were making predictions about the participants’ outcome, but the observers were not allowed to make comments that might overly bias participants’ performance on the task.
- In order to determine if there was a difference in brain activity when participants completed the game alone or in the presence of peers, brain activity and responses to the driving task were aligned temporally.
- Adolescents, more so than young adults or adults, took more risks with peers than when alone, and crashed more with peers than when alone.
- In the presence of peers, adolescents demonstrated heightened brain activity in the incentive processing/socio-emotional system in comparison to young adults and adults.
- Adult participants did not show an increase in the incentive processing/socio-emotional system of the brain during the simulated driving task. Instead, young adults and adults showed more recruitment of the cognitive control system while completing the driving task, both in the presence of peers and alone.
- Results support a neurodevelopmental explanation for the influence of peers on risky behavior in adolescence. The findings suggest that the presence of peers increases the salience of immediate rewards, and activates the incentive processing/socio-emotional system of the brain, which subsequently increases risky decision-making.
- Results also suggest that adults, due to maturation, are better able to recruit the cognitive control system of the brain in order to engage in better-reasoned decision-making when confronted with risky situations.
- To explore age differences in susceptibility to peer influences: (1) across a diverse demographic group and (2) using a measure specifically designed to examine resistance to peer influences in neutral rather than anti-social scenarios.
- To determine whether growth in resistance to peer influences increases “linearly” (e.g., gradually increases as youth age) throughout adolescence.
- Used data that had been previously collected from three different studies in order to have a diverse group of participants who varied in age (ten to 30), gender, social class and ethnicity.
o Additionally, the samples consisted of individuals from the community, as well as those who had been arrested.
- Resistance to Peer Influence (RPI) was measured by a self-report questionnaire that directed participants to choose between two statements in order to best describe how they would respond to pressure from peers in different scenarios.
- Results indicate that youth from ages 14 to 18 increase in their resistance to peer influences. By 18, youth appear to reach maturity in regard to resistance to peer influence, and show little growth in this capacity. In fact, their scores are comparable to those of 30-year-olds.
- Additionally, researchers reported demographic differences with some groups, showing more resistance to peer influences than others.
- Although teenagers may be more susceptible than adults to the influence of their peers, middle adolescence is an important time period for developing a resistance to peer influences.