Cognitive Daily

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.


  1. #1 John
    July 27, 2007

    I had this conversation several times when I was younger:

    Random guy: Hey, do want some pot?
    Me: No, I never do that stuff.
    Random guy: That’s cool, that’s cool. I shouldn’t either.

    I ended up concluding that peer pressure was almost a myth. Later I was talking to a girl that had gone through a rough drug patch and asked how she got caught up in that. She recounted saying no the first time and someone literally saying “I thought you were cool”. She felt crushed and resolved next time to take it.

  2. #2 tekel
    July 27, 2007

    You didn’t participate? Or you didn’t inhale?

  3. #3 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    July 27, 2007

    Perhaps there could be a difference between refusing peer pressure in an immediate situation (peer pressure, tactics, not habituated) and over a longer period (conformism, strategy, habituated).

  4. #4 Dave Munger
    July 27, 2007

    John: I think you’re hitting on exactly what makes this such a difficult area to study.

    Tekel: Didn’t participate. Turned out to be a good decision, since several people got arrested.

    Torbjörn, good point. This article seems to suggest that people who are susceptible to peer pressure react differently in the immediate situation.

  5. #5 Jen
    July 27, 2007

    I think there’s a big difference between explicit and implicit peer pressure. I’m 19 years old, I don’t know anyone who would explicitly say “you’re not cool” or something to that effect to someone turning down drugs or alcohol. When I was in high school, my classmates would go on and on about how there’s no real peer pressure in our environment. If someone doesn’t drink or whatever, you would look like an idiot and a jerk for not respecting their decision (at least in my crowd).

    Yet peer pressure is alive and well in my environment. Being surrounded by people who are doing the same thing (even without heckling others about it) is implicit peer pressure. I remember being in a crowd of pedestrians at an NFL game once and everyone started moving in one direction. Why? Because a couple people started moving that way, and soon everyone followed (the original guy had no idea where he was going). To me, this is the most powerful “peer pressure”. If someone’s being an asshole and telling you you have to drink, it’s relatively easy to see that as stupid/disrespectful behavior and take up an opposing position. But implicit social pressure can creep up on us when we’re not paying attention… when we think we’re in control and making our own, individual decisions. When you combine the natural human tendency to follow the crowd with the insecurity and urge to fit in of adolescence, you’ve have a big pile of drunk teenagers.

  6. #6 daksya
    July 28, 2007

    insight into why so many kids do as their peers do, even when they know what their friends are doing is wrong?

    Your explicit assumption – that ‘The Kid’ knows it’s wrong – is subject to question. Not all kids believe, with strong conviction, all that they are told. Kids start to lie at an early age, indicating that they understand that their goals may not coincide with those of others. They also soon understand that others understand this too. Wherein comes the notion of credibility. If The Kid truly believes that smoking pot is wrong, then his/her act of adopting the act of smoking can be attributed to peer pressure. But in other cases, The Kid simply ignores the moral lectures as “parent pressure”.

  7. #7 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    July 28, 2007

    Why? Because a couple people started moving that way, and soon everyone followed (the original guy had no idea where he was going). To me, this is the most powerful “peer pressure”.

    Yes, but sports events slides into group dynamics and rituals. (And if an individual is an organism with one brain, a group is an organism without. :-P)

  8. #8 acm
    July 30, 2007

    heck, even the example ethos of “pressuring somebody rather than respecting their decision makes you a jerk” is one that your group adopted (and, presumably, those who joined the group learned by example), creating a peer-pressure environment in a good direction — you could easily imagine finding yourself in a situation where folks you thought you liked had the opposite view, and it might be harder to break free than to just laugh as they torment the “square” or whatever . . . indeed “what I do” is a stronger example than “what I say” in most situations.

  9. #9 srah
    July 31, 2007

    Not all kids believe, with strong conviction, all that they are told.
    This is an excellent point, and I think it’s fair enough for the kids.
    I bet the campaign involved very little explanation of the effects of drugs, and a lot of the ‘do what you’re told’ idea. If kids are intelligent enough to deceive their parents at a very young age, then they’re intelligent enough to figure this ‘strategy’ out, and are therefore a lot less likely to follow it. The best thing is to explain as much as possible and let them decide the correct way forward.

    Incidentally, it’s only ‘wrong’ because it’s illegal, let’s be honest. Nobody calls drinking alcohol ‘wrong’, because it’s legal (many countries such as Poland and Switzerland have a low drinking age or none at all) even though the damage it causes is far greater.

  10. #10 allison
    July 31, 2007

    I think part of the reason the “Just Say No” campaign was so absurd was that essentially, the establishment was saying, “Don’t replace your own good judgement for the judgement of your peers, replace your own good judgement with our judgement!” You lose credibility when you talk about marijuana as morally equivilant to heroin. Nancy Reagan says, “Just say no” and I (who hasn’t so much as smoked a cigarette) want to say, “Why should I?” I don’t even know how much research has been done about drug resistance education, but I do know that there’s been research done in teen pregnancy prevention education that says if you give kids information and tell them to use their judgement they’re more likely to not have unplanned pregnancy and contract sexually transmitted infections than if you tell them to “Just say no.”

    Peer pressure totally exists. It’s just not the only reason kids do drugs. Some drugs are fun. And until we admit that and say there’s a time and a place and there’s such a thing as moderation, the zero-tolerance is going to lead to more drug use.

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