When I was in college, Ronald Reagan was president, and his wife Nancy Reagan gained a lot of media attention with her project to end drug abuse. Here campaign followed the mantra “just say no,” suggesting that kids should be able to resist pressure to use drugs simply by refusing to give in to peer pressure.
Most people my age thought the campaign was ridiculous. On college campuses across the nation there was a “Nancy Reagan Day” where students got together and smoked marijuana in public (no, I didn’t participate!).
Psychologists have been exploring the powerful influence of peer pressure for decades, but now neuroscientists are also getting involved in the research. Can fMRI and other techniques offer more insight into why so many kids do as their peers do, even when they know what their friends are doing is wrong? The Neurocritic has a breakdown of one recent study:
The authors wanted to see whether there were differences in the way that kids who are susceptible to peer pressure respond to these stimuli, relative to those who are resistant to peer pressure. The kids who are better able to resist peer pressure [at least, as measured by self-report on Steinberg and Monahan's resistance to peer influence questionnaire] showed more “coordinated” neural activity across a network of brain regions related to decision making and the perception of action than did the more easily influenced kids.
The kids were shown videos of neutral and angry faces, as well as neutral and angry hand movements, while brain activity was monitored by fMRI. Researchers found that while kids who had high resistance to peer pressure showed less overall brain activity during the angry videos, their activity was more coordinated compared to kids who said they were less able to resist the influence of their friends.
As with most studies of this type, it’s just a small piece of the puzzle. It would be interesting, for example, to see similar data for people who are more and less susceptible to drug addiction.