Why are some adolescents more prone to peer influence than others?

This blog post was written by Dr. Kaidy Stautz for the Alcohol and Drug Education and Prevention Information Service. For further information on this study, please see the reference below.

It is well established that an adolescent’s likelihood of engaging in alcohol and drug use is strongly linked to the drug use habits of his or her peers. Having friends who use drugs is a reliable predictor of whether an individual will go on to use drugs themselves. The influence of peers on drug use behaviour may be direct, such as when friends pressure an individual to use drugs, or indirect, whereby an individual observes and imitates their friends’ drug use in order to be accepted or to do what is felt to be appropriate.

Our findings, recently published in the Journal of Adolescence, showed that a heightened susceptibility to peer influence was related to a specific aspect of impulsivity termed urgency, which is the tendency to act impulsively when experiencing very strong negative or positive emotions.  Urgency has previously been linked with problematic alcohol and substance use, as well as self-harm, eating problems, and risky sexual behaviour. We also found that individuals who were specifically high in negative urgency (acting impulsively in response to negative emotions such as sadness) and who felt that they had low levels of social status were even more susceptible to peer influence. These relationships were present for both males and females.Although all adolescents find their peer group to be an important source of information and reinforcement, individuals differ in their level of susceptibility to peer influence. It is not yet clear how these differences arise, but it is possible that they are related to broader personality characteristics, or traits. We attempted to address this question with a cross-sectional survey of 269 sixth form students from two London colleges. We focused on two personality traits that appear to be heightened during the teenage years: impulsivity, the tendency to act without forethought or restraint; and reward sensitivity, the degree to which an individual is motivated by incentives. We measured various aspects of these traits along with a measure of resistance to peer influence in which participants reported whether they were more likely to resist or relent to their peers in ten scenarios. We also asked participants to report their subjective social status – how liked and respected they felt in their friendship group and year group.

Two practical implications for alcohol and drug education arise from these results. First, it is important to consider individual characteristics when trying to understand why some adolescents have difficulty resisting their peers. Those who tend to ‘go along with the crowd’ may be less able to control their behaviour when experiencing very strong emotional states. Peer acceptance and rejection have particularly strong emotional impacts during the adolescent years, and may lead some individuals to behave irresponsibly or against their better judgement. Teaching teenagers to be aware that strong emotions can lead to careless actions and better equipping them to regulate their behaviour in extreme moods may improve their ability to resist peer pressure.

A second implication is that adolescents who feel socially excluded and who have difficulty regulating strong negative emotions may be especially prone to peer influence, and could be more likely to use drugs as a way of coping with distress or as a way to gain social status with a drug-using peer group. These individuals may benefit from social skills training so that they are better able to make and maintain positive relationships with others and are knowledgeable on effective ways to stand up to unwanted pressure from more dominant peers.

These implications are in line with ADEPIS recommendations that emphasise a ‘life skills’ approach to effective alcohol and drug education, focusing on strengthening adolescents’ interpersonal skills and coping resources in order to build resilience to situations that might encourage drug use.

Dr Kaidy Stautz is currently a Research Associate at the Behaviour and Health Research Unit, University of Cambridge. This study was conducted as part of his PhD research at Goldsmiths, University of London.