If everyone jumps off a bridge, would you too?

For better or for worse, some of our most vivid memories are the ones we made as a teenager. Memories of questionable fashion choices, high school cliques, and many faux pas certainly reinforce just how tumultuous the adolescent years were. With the newfound importance of peer and romantic relationships, a key motivation underlying most teenage behaviors is the desire to “fit in.” Do they want to hang out with me? Does he like me? Will this make me look cool? Although these questions may arise at any age, the motivation toward social belonging is perhaps most salient and emotionally evocative during adolescence.

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If everyone jumps off a bridge, would you too?

In some situations, individuals will shift their own attitudes and behaviors to be more like others, a phenomenon known as social influence. Although conforming to social influences can increase feelings of social belonging, most research has focused on the negative consequences of being affected by, or susceptible to, social influences, especially during adolescence. For example, relative to adults, adolescents take more risks in the presence of peers than when they are alone. Thus, a widely popular belief shared by parents, educators, and policymakers is that peers steer youth toward engaging in negative behaviors that they otherwise would not participate in. While adolescents are notorious for “hanging out with the wrong crowd,” researchers wanted to know if adults are susceptible to social influence too.

Scientists recently showed the effect of social influence on decision making changes significantly from late childhood to adulthood. In two studies, participants (8-59 years old) rated the perceived riskiness of everyday situations (e.g., crossing a street on a red light).Then, they were shown the ratings of a social influence group (either teenagers or adults) on the same situations before being asked to rate the everyday situations again. Although all participants changed their risk perception in the direction of the social influence group, younger participants were more susceptible to social influence on risk perception than older participants. In other words, risk attitudes are most likely to be shaped by social influence during childhood and early adolescence, an effect that wanes but persists in late adolescence and adulthood.

The source of social influence matters too. The authors found that early adolescents (12-14 years) were the only age group to change their perceptions of risk more in the direction of other teenagers’ perceptions. Children (8-11 years), late adolescents (15-18 years), young adults (19-25 years), and adults (26-59 years) showed the opposite effect, being more influenced by the risk perceptions of other adults relative to other teenagers. Overall, these findings highlight the profound impact other people have in shaping risk attitudes, even beyond the teenage years. Whereas peers are most influential in shaping early adolescents’ risk attitudes, adults play a stronger role in changing risk attitudes at earlier and later ages. One possibility is that most individuals incorporate the advice of adults when forming their risk attitudes because adults are considered experienced and trustworthy. In contrast, early adolescents may value the opinions of other teenagers more than the opinions of adults to inform their risk perceptions, potentially due to the heightened importance of peer acceptance and social belonging during this time. While the desire to fit in may push everyone to give in to social pressures, even beyond the teenage years, the type of consequences that arise from adopting others’ risk attitudes depends on the source of that social influence. Thus, perhaps the more appropriate question to have posed at the beginning of the blog is whether those around you would jump or not?

Peer edited by Kathryn Weatherford and Breanna Truman.

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