Teens significantly overestimate their peers involvement in substance use and sexual behaviors, but underestimate the amount of time their peers spend studying or exercising, according to new research based at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Since teens are sensitive to the judgment of their peers, researchers are working to better understand the role that ‘peer pressure’ truly plays during this vulnerable stage. The study sheds light on teen misperceptions of their peers’ behavior as well as the implications of this.
“This quest for identity can sometimes lead adolescents in the wrong direction,” said Geoffery Cohen, a co-author and professor at Stanford Graduate School of Education.
For the study, researchers reviewed the perceptions and behaviors of 235 10th grade participants at a suburban, middle-income high school. They followed a method commonly used in adolescent research, in which five reputation-based groups were identified: socially-oriented populars, athletically-oriented jocks, deviant-oriented burnouts, academically-oriented brains, and students who were not strongly affiliated with any specific crowd.
Jocks and populars ranked higher in likability than burnouts and brains, and were therefore identified as ‘high-status.’
“Adolescents tend to conform to stereotypes that we have seen in the Breakfast Club, but those stereotypes do not exist as dramatically as we once thought,” said senior investigator Mitch Prinstein, John Van Seters Distinguished Professor of Psychology at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
“The behavior of all types of kids are grossly misunderstood or misperceived by adolescents, not just the jocks and the populars but also the brains and the burnouts.”
Students reported their engagement in a variety of behaviors confidentially, allowing researchers to compare the actual and perceived behavior of the groups. Each group expressed what the researchers called ‘gross misperceptions.’ Even teens in the high-status groups had exaggerated perceptions of their own group peers’ risky behaviors.
For example, populars reported that they smoked about 1.5 cigarettes a day in the past month, while others in- and outside their group thought they smoked three cigarettes a day. Jocks reported that they didn’t smoke much at all but others believed they smoked at least one cigarette per day.
Burnouts reported that they smoked about two to three cigarettes per day, but their peers estimated that they smoked a half-pack to a whole pack of cigarettes a day.
According to their peers’ perceptions, jocks not only smoked more, they binged on alcohol more and had more sex than what the jocks reported as their actual behavior.
Burnouts faced several misperceptions as well. While they did, in fact, smoke relatively more marijuana than other groups, they did not smoke nearly as much as what other students thought. The burnouts were also wrongly presumed to shoplift and damage property more frequently and study less than what they reported.
On the other hand, the brainy students studied on average only about half the time that their peers believed they did.
“The implications … are troubling,” said the researchers in the American Psychological Association journal. “Results suggest that adolescents have a caricatured perception of their peers’ behavior (perhaps especially so for high-status peers) and are influenced by those gross misperceptions.”