This study found that adolescents’ susceptibility to peer influence, observed in interactions with a close friend, were predictive not only of future responses to negative peer pressure, but also to broad markers of difficulties in psychosocial functioning, including declining popularity and increasing depressive symptoms over time, and to concurrent measures of deviant behavior and substance abuse. The relations observed were obtained across methods and raters, employing a newly developed laboratory-based behavioral approach to assessing susceptibility to peer influence and linking it to outcomes as assessed by mothers, peers, and the adolescents themselves. Notably, our assessment of susceptibility to peer influence was constructed such that although high scores indicated high susceptibility to peer influence, low scores reflected high levels of influence exerted upon one’s close friend. This means that adolescents who were more successful in asserting their influence with their close friends (i.e., who were leaders in the interactions) displayed lower levels of problematic behavior and adaptational difficulties. Overall, these findings suggest that establishing autonomy with peers, similar to the task of establishing autonomy with parents, may be a primary task of adolescent social development.
Adolescents who were more susceptible to being influenced by their peers at age 13 were more likely to experience negative forms of peer pressure, as reported by peers, over the course of the following year. This indicates that the same process of susceptibility to peer influence identified in our lab-based task predicted peer reports of actual behavior in the face of pressure one year later at age 14. The lack of a concurrent correlation between susceptibility to influence and peer reports of teens’ succumbing to negative peer pressure is most likely due to the developmental immaturity of 13-year-olds as reporters in a task requiring somewhat complex perspective-taking skills (i.e., recognizing that a friend is giving in to pressure by others, possibly including oneself ). Such perspective-taking abilities are just in the process of coming online at this age (Selman, 1980
), and adolescents are also gaining increasing experience in recognizing instances of peer pressure, both of which may account for adolescents being more capable of sensitively detecting a friends’ susceptibility to negative peer pressure at age 14 than they were at age 13. This lack of relation to self-report measures at age 13 (together with predictions of future self-report indices) also suggests the potential unreliability of self-report approaches to assessing susceptibility to peer pressure very early in adolescence.
It is most important for the overarching hypotheses of this study that observed susceptibility to peer influence had implications well beyond reported experience in peer interactions. Susceptible adolescents were not only more likely to be increasingly pressured to engage in negative behaviors in the future, they also actually engaged in higher levels of concurrent problematic behavior, including general patterns of externalizing behavior and an increased incidence of precocious sexual activity. Unlike prior research in this area, the relations observed in this study were obtained by assessing susceptibility to peer influence in a neutral task, which did not in any way reference or tap attitudes toward problematic behaviors. This is an advance over prior research that has confounded susceptibility and willingness to engage in problem behaviors, in that it shows that susceptibility to peer influence is linked to problematic behavior even when the susceptibility is conceived and assessed broadly, and not just in the context of specific peer influences regarding problematic behaviors (Berndt, 1979
; Santor et al., 2000
). This approach thus presents some of the best evidence to date that susceptibility to peer influence, although relevant to adolescent deviant behavior, may in fact reflect one aspect of a far more general process of adolescent autonomy development. Together these findings suggest a reliable concurrent linkage between susceptibility to peer influence and a variety of the problem behaviors that are most likely to occur in a peer context in adolescence, suggesting that the same processes may in part give rise to both observed susceptibility and to adolescent problem behaviors.
In terms of deviance, prior research has identified general processes by which individuals at risk for deviant behavior may entrain each other in such behavior (Poulin, Dishion, & Haas, 1999
). This study complements research on general peer entrainment processes by now identifying specific susceptible individuals who are most likely to receive peer pressure to engage in negative behavior and to also engage in such behavior themselves. One explanation is that susceptible adolescents may have more difficulty making their own judgments about problematic behaviors and may, instead, need to go along with the perceived judgments of their larger peer group. At age 13 adolescents are moving into a peer culture in which engaging in negative forms of behavior receives at least mild approval from some peers as a marker of relative maturity (Moffitt, 1993
). Susceptible adolescents may have particular difficulty in charting an autonomous course through these peer norms. This explanation receives the greatest support with respect to experimentation with alcohol and marijuana. Although adolescent susceptibility was related to higher levels of alcohol and marijuana use in general, this relationship was particularly strong for susceptible adolescents whose close peers had experimented with these drugs. This is notable in part because the relatively low levels of experimentation in this young, community sample suggest that some susceptible adolescents may not have been exposed to significant levels of peer alcohol and drug use. Thus, it is notable that although susceptible adolescents were somewhat more likely to engage in higher levels of alcohol and drug use overall, the extent to which they did so was directly related to the extent to which their peers experimented with these substances. The alcohol and drug usage of adolescents who were below average in susceptibility, in contrast, was not related to the usage levels of their peers, suggesting that their verbal autonomy in our lab-based interaction task may have tapped into their more general patterns of behavioral autonomy in real-life interactions with peers.
In addition to difficulties with problematic behavior, easily influenced adolescents also appeared both less competent within their close friendships (as rated by both themselves and their close friend) and less likely to return to our study in the following year with the same close friend, suggesting a degree of inherent instability in the quality of their friendships. These susceptible adolescents also demonstrated relative declines in popularity from age 13 to age 14 compared to less susceptible adolescents. These findings suggest a parallel with emerging findings in studies of adolescent–parent relationships that autonomy is most adaptively established in the context of a supportive and positive relationship (Allen, Hauser, Eickholt, et al., 1994
; Allen, Hauser, O’Connor, & Bell, 2002
; Allen, Marsh, et al., 2002
). It may be that insecurity about the quality of close peer relationships holds back the adolescent in his or her efforts to establish autonomy with close peers, perhaps out of fear of losing the friendship. Alternatively, lack of self-assertion may itself limit one’s availability to fully participate in a close friendship and may contribute to difficulties in these friendships. In either case, these findings suggest that a lack of autonomy and a lack of relatedness may be closely connected in early adolescent friendships just as they are in adolescents’ relationships with their parents.
Susceptibility to peer influence also appeared linked to adolescents’ future psychological well being, as adolescents who were highly susceptible to peer influence were also likely to experience increases in depressive symptoms over the following year. One explanation is that adolescents who were observed to be easily influenced in our experimental task may well also have been having significant difficulties interacting assertively with their peers more generally so as to get their own needs met in relationships. Such difficulties are seen as likely to lead to depression, consonant both with the principles from interpersonal theories of depression that link it to self-assertion difficulties (Coyne, 1976a
; Price et al., 1994
), and with parallel evidence from parent–adolescent interactions that difficulties establishing autonomy are linked to higher levels of depressive symptoms (Allen, Hauser, Eickholt, et al., 1994
Finally, it is important to note that while the findings of this paper have largely been interpreted in terms of susceptibility to peer influence, the converse perspective also applies: the capacity to influence one’s peers was associated with numerous positive outcomes. Specifically, adolescents who took leadership roles in their friendships were less likely to be pressured to engage in negative behaviors, less likely to actually engage in a range of risky behaviors, and ultimately less likely to be depressed. They were also rated as being better at handling close friendships and were more likely to increase in popularity over time. Overall, adolescents who are able to successfully establish autonomy, and even leadership roles, in close friendships with peers appear to be progressing along a positive developmental trajectory associated with a range of positive psychosocial outcomes.
These findings suggest that although some peer influences may be negative during adolescence, the adolescents who take leadership roles in interactions with their closest friends are not necessarily the sources of these negative influences. In this study, the more socially competent adolescents tended to take the leadership role in best-friend interactions, and this study was not able to identify any negative facets of that role. Similarly, the adolescents who were leaders in these best-friend interactions were actually less likely to engage in problematic behavior, which implies that the most destructive influences in peer interactions may not always come from the most influential teens. It should be noted, however, that leadership roles in this study were only assessed within
close friendships. Leaders within close friendships may not be the same individuals as those who tend to dominate larger group interactions. For example, research has found that broader leadership roles in larger groups of peers may not be associated with entirely positive traits, encompassing elements of dominance and even of aggressive behavior (Parkhurst & Hopmeyer, 1998
). Leader and follower roles may well have quite different meanings within the intimate confines of a best friendship than they do in larger peer groups, and further research will be needed to sort out these distinctions.
It should also be noted that this study assessed only one facet of adolescents’ developing autonomy with peers. Although the ability to maintain one’s initial position in a dyadic discussion marks aspects of self-reliance, self-confidence, and assertion that are important facets of autonomy, other aspects are important as well and were not assessed. For example, Allen and colleagues (1994)
have argued that being truly persuaded by another’s reasoning to change one’s mind reflects an autonomous resolution of a disagreement. Unfortunately, the measure used in the present study, while having the advantage of being a face valid measure of susceptibility to influence, does not allow for distinctions to be made based on whether adolescents were internally persuaded in changing their minds versus simply caving in to influence. Similarly, some adolescents may have been depressed or apathetic, and hence unwilling to pursue disagreements.
It may be that in terms of negative peer influence and difficulties in the peer group, the fact of a teen’s overall susceptibility may be more important than whether that susceptibility was based on openness to persuasion, fear of pressure, or apathy. Further research, however, might productively explore the sources of this susceptibility as it is manifest in different ways (e.g., as apathy, persuadeability, submissiveness, etc.)and even the possibility that some aspects of susceptibility to peer influence might have correlates to positive indices such as sociability. It is also possible, however, that whatever the sources, teens’ susceptibility to peer influence may place them at some degree of risk for the types of problematic outcomes examined in this study. If antisocial teens are indeed working hardest to coerce others into joining them in their behavior, as some childhood research suggests (Dishion, Duncan, Eddy, Fagot, & Fetrow, 1994
), then any susceptibility to influence may be important, regardless of how it comes about. Even if one is truly “persuaded” to engage in antisocial behavior by the insistent reasoning of a coercive peer, the outcome is still problematic. Given that many teen peer groups display heterogeneity in the levels of functioning of their members, exposing their members to both positive and negative role models, this study suggests one method that can be used to explore which individuals will be more versus less susceptible to negative influences from peers. Alternatively, it may be that the relative brevity of the interactions around disagreements in our task was such that changing one’s mind as a result of true persuasion was actually quite rare, and that susceptibility to influence as we observed it primarily reflected a lack of autonomy in all senses of the term. In support of this interpretation, it is notable that what might seem like an ideal middle ground for some purposes (accepting and rejecting 50% of a partner’s choices in disagreements), was not ideal in this instance, as the relationship of susceptibility to outcomes was linear: more susceptibility was associated with less positive outcomes across the entire range of levels of susceptibility assessed.
There are several limitations to these data that should be kept in mind in interpreting the findings. First, even longitudinal data obtained from multiple, independent sources are not sufficient to demonstrate causal relationships and many of the findings reported herein were observed only in concurrent data. Thus, these findings could be consistent with a range of explanations: that susceptibility to peer influence may cause an increased risk of problematic behavior; that susceptibility may result from such a risk; that susceptibility may reflect underlying developmental difficulties that produce both susceptibility and problematic outcomes; or that susceptibility may result from a combination of these processes. Further research is now needed to understand the sources of such susceptibility and its exact relation to future problematic behaviors.
Second, although the finding that susceptibility displayed consistent links to many different outcome markers assessed via multiple methods indicates that the phenomenon being examined is robust and likely to be part of a broader developmental process, the modest links to any single outcome also make it clear that susceptibility to peer influence is only one of a multitude of potential contributors to critical adolescent outcomes. This study supports a consistent role for susceptibility in understanding a broad array of negative adolescent outcomes, but should not be taken as suggesting that it is the sole or even primary factor in understanding these outcomes.
Third, this study deliberately assessed susceptibility to peer influence in one highly specific and ecologically relevant context (a current close friendship). Adolescents obviously select their close friends, and the nature of this relationship and of the friend selected will undoubtedly affect the degree of susceptibility observed. From this perspective, susceptibility to peer influence should not be viewed as a personality trait that exists in a psychosocial vacuum any more than any other critical social–interactional characteristic. Rather, this study considered susceptibility to peer influence as one potentially important aspect of the developing person within the social context matrix of behavioral responses of the adolescent. Future research will be needed to understand the extent to which the susceptibility within a primary peer relationship observed in this study reflects a more generalized pattern of susceptibility to influence by other peers. Fourth and finally, this study focused entirely upon early adolescence, a period during which peer pressure is believed to be still increasing sharply. Whether and how these findings might generalize to other phases of adolescent development clearly warrants consideration in future research.