A new study from Temple University finds that teens are highly susceptible to peer pressure, or peer acceptance – even if it means taking extreme risks. Researchers used "functional magnetic resonance imaging scans" on 40 teenagers and adults to determine if there were differences in brain activity when adolescents are alone compared to when they are with their friends. The study found that teenage peer pressure has a clear effect on brain signals related to risk and reward.
Researchers selected 14 teenagers (ages 14 – 18), 14 college students, and 12 young adults for the study. All were asked to play a six-minute driving game while in a brain scanner. Participants were offered cash prizes for completing the game in a certain amount of time, but had to make decisions about stopping at yellow lights, being delayed, or racing through them to save time. Naturally blowing through these lights meant a faster time and a bigger prize, but it also could mean a higher risk for crashes or longer delays. The teens and adults played four rounds of the game while undergoing the brain scan. Half the time they would play the game alone, and half the time they were told by researchers that two same-sex friends who had accompanied them to the study were watching them play in the next room.
The adults and college students in the tests were not affected by having their peers watch them play or playing alone. But the young teenagers in the tests were greatly affected by their peers’ presence. Researchers found that they ran 40 percent more yellow lights and had 60 percent more crashes when told that their friends were watching. The regions of the brain associated with reward also showed greater activity when friends watched, but it was if that activity was drowning out any warnings about risks.
"The presence of peers activated the reward circuitry in the brain of adolescents that it didn’t do in the case of adults," said Laurence Steinberg, one of the authors of the study and a psychology professor at Temple. He is also the author of the book You and Your Adolescent: The Essential Guide for Ages 10 to 25.
Steinberg believes that this study has uncovered a concrete reason why adolescents do "stupid things" with their friends that they would not do when they are solo. He adds that, because the subjects were inside a scanner, their friends could not directly pressure them, but that did not seem to matter. Just knowing that their peers were watching them was enough to make them do things that would be considered dangerous or risky.
Steinberg says that the brain system involved in reward processing is also involved in processing social information. This would explain why peers could have such a profound effect on a person’s decision-making process. The effect is stronger in teens, says Steinberg, because of brain changes shortly after puberty.
"All of us who have very good kids know they’ve done really dumb things when they’ve been with their friends," Steinberg said. "The lesson is that if you have a kid whom you think of as very mature and able to exercise good judgment, based on your observations when he or she is alone or with you, that doesn’t necessarily generalize to how he or she will behave in a group of friends without adults around. Parents should be aware of that."
Read more about the study here.