Motivation and emotion/Book/2011/Peer influence in adolescence

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Imagine this... You’re at your graduation after party to celebrate finally reaching the end of your seemingly never-ending high school years. One of your classmates pulls out a packet of cigarettes and with a defiant grin, starts offering them around to all your friends. None of you have ever tried one so you assume that the group consensus will be to turn down the offer. To your surprise, the packet gets passed around the circle and everyone before you takes one. Eventually, the packet makes it's way around to you. What do you do? How about if everyone except one person had chosen to take a cigarette? Would you go with the crowd or the minority? What about if that minority was your best friend? What if the person offering the cigarettes was the most popular guy in school? Or, what if he was a ‘nerd’? What would you do then? And what would be the motivation behind your actions in each of these situations?

The above scenario is an example of peer influence; something that each and every one of us faces as we make our way through the difficult and often confronting time that is adolescence. The purpose of this chapter is to unpack the motivations behind the decision to conform (or not) in situations just like the above. After a brief description of peer influence and it's scope, we will look to theory to try and explain it's motivational power. The theories explored include self-determination theory, the concept of normative social influence and Erikson's stages of psychosocial development. We will then move on to discuss what might make certain individuals more susceptible to peer influence, before we use of all this information to formulate a 'way forward' for both parents and teens. For adolescents, how can you use your motivations to avoid the risks and stay true to yourself? For parents, what can you do to best support your teens through the inevitable pressures?

Peer influence: The basics[edit]

Peer influence describes the process by which people are shaped by the attitudes and behaviours of those around them. The majority of literature on peer influence is focused on adolescents, and for good reason. The teenage years mark the stage in life between childhood, where parents and carers are primarily relied upon, and adulthood, where we become largely autonomous. Steinberg and Monahan (2007) suggest that adolescence is the time when we are most susceptible to peer influence, but also that it provides a great opportunity to practice the skills required to avoid influences that may be detrimental to us, and stay true to ourselves. To do this, we must understand the motivations behind such conformity.

Before taking a look at the scientific and theoretic explanations, it's worthwhile to understand the diverse effects of peer influence. Most of us correlate this form of influence with negative outcomes. While research does link conformity to peer influence to cigarette smoking (Vitoria, Salgueiro, Silva, & De Vries, 2009), alcohol use (Wood, Read, Mitchell, & Brand, 2004) and antisocial behaviour (Monahan, Steinberg, & Cauffman, 2009), it is important to also recognise that peer influence can be positive. For example, some suggest that those who interact with prosocial peers are more likely to exhibit prosocial behaviours themselves and set positive goals (Barry & Wentzel, 2006). Peer influence can also provide motivation towards academic and sporting (Keegan, Spray, & Harwood, 2010) achievement. So, what motivates these behaviours in adolescents?

Example: Riding with a drunk driver[edit]

A salient reminder of the possible consequences of drink driving

Since Asch’s famous conformity experiment (1955), a significant amount of research has been carried out on conformity and peer influence. For example, Powell and Drucker (1997) examined the willingness of participants to get in the car with a noticeably intoxicated driver, with the hypothesis that the choices of others (represented by a confederate) would significantly affect participants’ decisions.

The results confirmed not only the hypothesis but also the frightening power of peer influence. Ninety six per cent of participants chose to get into the car when the driver was intoxicated and the confederate also chose to do so. Conversely, 90 per cent refused to enter the car when the confederate openly refused. This indicates that participants did not base their decisions on whether the driver was intoxicated, but rather on the decisions of another person. Interestingly, participants were also measured on their level of concern prior to making their decision. Results indicated that the level remained consistently high across all conditions involving the intoxicated driver. Therefore, it was the mere presence of another non-complying individual who gave them the confidence to speak up. This offers an important lesson for peer influence – it only takes one non-conforming individual to empower others.


There are no theories developed specifically to explain peer influence in adolescence. However, by applying the following theories, we are able to gain interesting insight into the motivation behind conformity behaviours.

Self-determination theory[edit]

Within self-determination theory, it is the needs for relatedness and autonomy that are most relevant to the study of peer influence.

Self-determination theory (SDT) is a theory of human motivation based on three basic psychological needs; autonomy, relatedness and competence. The theory suggests that psychological well-being and development are dependent upon these three needs being met (Deci & Ryan, 2008). Therefore, as humans we are motivated to work towards satisfying these needs. The various aspects of SDT have been applied in a variety of settings including education (Guay, Ratelle, & Chanal, 2008), parenting (Joussemet, Landry, & Koestner, 2008) and cultural practices (Chirkov, Ryan, Kim, & Kaplan, 2003). In this discussion around peer influence, there are two needs in particular which are seen as especially important.

The first is relatedness. That is, the need to feel connected and close to others (Veronneau, Koestner, & Abela, 2005). According to SDT, humans are motivated to satisfy this need. This provides a viable explanation for the motivational power of peer influence in that as humans, we desire to feel related to others and this motivates us to behave in ways that are consistent with those around us. As a result, we can foster peer relations and satisfy the innate need for relatedness.

The second need that is particularly relevant to peer influence is that of autonomy. While this may at first seem counterintuitive, it is in fact the motivation to achieve autonomy from parental influence that may lead an individual to be more susceptible to peer influence. Therefore, the motivational power of peer influence may stem from the adolescents need for autonomy from parental influence.

Interestingly there is a lack of research linking the psychological need for competence to peer influence, however as we indirectly discover later in the discussion around involvement in sporting teams, the motivation behind this need may provide import insight into conformity.

Normative social influence[edit]

Normative social influence, which later was adopted by Latane’s social impact theory (Latane, 1981), provides possibly the most straight forward and intuitive explanation for the motivation behind conformity to peer influence. This model suggests that we are motivated to conform as a result of our desire to be liked and accepted (Deutsch & Gerard, 1955). This is often discussed in comparison to what is called informational influence which is described as conformity due to the desire to be factually correct (Miyajima & Naito, 2008).

Normative social influence has consistently been shown to outweigh the perceived importance of informational influence in adolescents. It is generally suggested that compliance with normative influence breeds only extrinsic motivation; that is, the beliefs are not internalised and therefore, not long term. However, a recent Japanese study proposes otherwise (Miyajima & Naito, 2008). The adolescent participants in this study were tested on the importance of social influence to conformity at two points in time, with and without the presence of normative influence. Results indicated that adolescents show strong conformity that continues even without the presence of immediate normative influence. From this it has been suggested that attitudes may be privately accepted and therefore the behaviour occurs no longer as a result of extrinsic motivation to conform, but rather due to intrinsic motivations. While this research certainly provides insight into the possibly evolving nature of conformity motivation, lack of replication to date weakens these findings.

Erikson: Identity vs. role confusion[edit]

Erik Erikson

Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development provide another useful platform for us to further understand the motivational forces behind peer influence. Each of Erikson’s eight stages of development represents a life challenge which builds upon the successful accomplishment of the previous stage. For adolescents, the challenge is 'identity' verses 'role confusion', and Erikson suggests we are intrinsically motivated towards achieving a resolution (Kroger, 2000). During this stage, adolescents are thought to consider for the first time – ‘who am I?’, ‘who do I want to be?’ and ‘who does society expect me to be?’ According to Erikson (1968), this search for identity often involves exploring extremes and testing limits before choosing a life path. Delinquent and self-destructive tendencies are seen as possible, and maybe even natural, aspects of the journey. Erikson goes on to discuss the need for youth to find stable relationships outside those with their families – a concept he labels 'fidelity'.

"...because youth, always set to grasp both diversity in principle and principle in diversity, must often test extremes before settling on a considered course" (Erikson, 1968, pg. 235)

It may be suggested, then, that conformity to peer influence in adolescence is motivated by this search for identity. Those questions we ask ourselves about who we want to be provides motivation for wider experiences and the search for fidelity leads us to look to others. This search for wider experiences is possibly the most researched area with regards to conformity to peer influence. Studies such as that by Monahan, Steinberg and Cauffman (2009) find that adolescents, especially those in middle adolescence, are very open and susceptible to involvement in antisocial behaviours. One possible rationale behind this is that youth are motivated to explore varied experiences through others in order to define their identity.

Identity agents[edit]

More recent research adopting Erikson’s idea that identity formation is a major challenge during adolescence looks at the process more so as a product of influence through collaboration. Schachter and Ventura (2008) introduced the idea that adolescents actively participate in the identity formation of their peers, and motivate them to conform to influences through confirmation and support. Peers who involve themselves in this form of influence have been labelled 'identity agents'. In contrast to research that supports Erikson’s theory, studies on identity agents have primarily focused on the positive outcomes of peer influence. For example, one study found that adolescents were motivated to conform to the positive study habits of their peers who offered social support and confirmation (Sugimura & Shimizu, 2010). While this idea of identity agents is relatively new, research thus far appears promising. The idea of confirmation as motivation towards conformity to peer influence is also relevant to self-esteem.

Susceptibility to peer influence[edit]

High-status groups[edit]

High status groups are particularly influential

While peer influence is seen to be a particularly important aspect in adolescence, the level of influence differs across groups. First and foremost, high-status groups are more influential than low-status groups. More specifically, high status groups are seen as most visible and it is these groups that are said to be more closely associated with behaviour change. This is true for both antisocial and prosocial behaviours (Ellis & Zarbatany, 2007). One possible explanation for this is that high-status groups generate more benefits than low-status groups and therefore the individuals within these groups are more motivated to maintain their status and receive the resulting benefits. The entry requirements for membership of these groups is often much higher and therefore, the influence more powerful (Tarrant, 2002). Think about the stereotypical ‘popular group’ that is portrayed in movies. To be part of the group not only do you have to meet basic requirement of being enrolled at a certain school for example, but you also have to be an attractive, athletic, party-goer with a car worth more than most of us can fathom. This is just one example of a high-status group with a number of benefits which motivates conformity in current and future members.

Individual charactertistics[edit]

There is an array of individual characteristics which appear to moderate the motivational forces of peer influence. Some of these are briefly explored below:


Age is a major factor in susceptibility to peer influence and it is well established that adolescents are the most vulnerable group. Those aged between 10 and 14 appear to have little resistance to peer influence and research suggests that resistance slowly increases between the ages of 14 and 18. This is consistent for both males and females, but does appear to differ slightly cross-culturally (Steinberg & Monahan, 2007).


Research suggests that females are more susceptible to peer influence, while males appear to be more influential (Conway et al., 2011). One study looking at drinking behaviours found that in mixed-gender friendship groups, males heavily influence the drinking behaviour of females, however female group members have little impact on the males' behaviours (Gaughan, 2006). This finding is yet to be generalised to other behaviours but does offer an interesting platform for further study.


A clear link exists between low self-esteem and susceptibility to peer influence. This has been demonstrated in terms of conformity to gender stereotypes (Good & Sanchez, 2010) and bullying behaviours (Salmivalli, Kaukiainen, Kaistaniemi, & Lagerspetz, 1999) in that those with low-self esteem are more likely to be influenced by the behaviours of others. This links back the theoretical constructs of normative social influence and identity agents.


Authoritative parenting is described as warm yet tough, and is linked to intrinsic motivation (Baumrind, 1971). Research suggests that this brand of parenting encourages adolescents to be less susceptible to peer influences in circumstances where the behaviour is antisocial, and much more susceptible to peer influence in circumstances where the behaviour is prosocial (Mounts & Steinberg, 1995).

Avoiding the risks: For adolescents[edit]

Now that we know about the motivational power of peer influence and can see what might make adolescents vulnerable, we should be able to determine a technique to avoid the negatives and stay true to ourselves.

First and foremost, it is important to recognise and accept that as humans we are motivated to fulfil innate needs for relatedness, autonomy and competence (as per SDT); we desire to be liked and accepted (as per normative social influence); and finally that adolescence is a time of identity formation (as per Erikson’s theory). After accepting these factors, it is then possible to direct our inevitable motivations towards more positive and appropriate behaviours. An example of this is shown in a British study looking at peer pressure to smoke (Michell & West, 1996). The following quotes provide a powerful illustration of the findings:

Involvement in sporting teams can be a positive use of our motivations

“…A girl I used to hang about with…she used to always smoke…and I felt as if I was being a bore so I started doing it.” (Michell & West, 1996, pg. 45)

“I used to hang around with these four girls and they used to smoke and then they started asking me did I want to smoke and they never dropped it so I just stopped hanging about with them after that. I hung around friends who were into soccer and all that”. (Michell & West, 1996, pg. 45)

Evidently, the motivation of the first participant to be liked and accepted has driven her to start smoking, while the second participant was able to avoid the risk and use those motivations, as well as her need for relatedness, to become involved in sport. Not only is this a much more healthy and positive alternative, but research strongly indicates that involvement in sporting teams provides a sense of belonging (Cameron & MacDougall, 2000). Research looking specifically at sporting teams and SDT indicates that involvement leads to satisfaction of all three needs (relatedness, competence and autonomy), and more broadly, predicts well-being (Reinboth & Duda, 2006). While involvement in sport is a great use of motivation, there are many other options such as study and community groups. Therefore, to avoiding the risks of peer influence we must accept our innate human motivations and use them to drive us towards positive and healthy behaviours.

Supporting your teens: For parents[edit]

While the motivation towards greater autonomy from parents is a natural part of adolescence, research indicates that there are still things you can do as a parent to help your teen avoid the risks of peer influence. As we have already learnt, authoritative parenting appears to be the most effective parenting style to assist adolescents in avoiding the risks and importantly, embracing the positives (Mounts & Steinberg, 1995). But what is so special about this model of parenting? Firstly, research emphasises the importance of providing structure, support and avoiding over-autonomy that can border on neglect (Dishion, Nelson, & Bullock, 2004). Having said this and being aware of the human motivation towards autonomy, being too restrictive can undermine the need this motivation and cause adolescents to engage in antisocial behaviour out of protest (Miller, Loeber, & Hipwell, 2009). By using the well-balanced authoritative style, parents are able to nurture the need for relatedness and offer acceptance, while still allowing some level of autonomy. This model directly aligns with the our knowledge on the motivational power of peer influence and once again works by fulfilling innate needs in a more positive manner.


The motivational power of peer influence is a complex concept that affects adolescents more so than any other age group. Empirically supported theories suggest that we are motivated to conform to peer influence by our needs for relatedness and autonomy, our desire to be liked and accepted, and finally by our quest to discover and create our adult identities. While these general theories of motivation are useful, there are also factors such as age, gender, self-esteem, parenting and status which appear to moderate the power of peer influence. Females, aged between 10 to 14 with low self-esteem and restrictive parents, are said to be most susceptible. However that doesn't have to be the case.

By utilising theory and scientific evidence, it is possible to devise techniques to avoid the risks and stay true to you. Firstly, it is vitally important to accept the innate psychological needs and motivations that we have as human beings. With this as a foundation, adolescents can fulfil these motivations through positive and healthy activities such as involvement in sporting teams. For parents, a similar principal applies; work towards fostering needs and desires in a positive way, particularly through authoritative parenting practices.

Adolescence is a transitional period that usually involves pressures and influences from a variety of sources. Find a positive pathway and use your motivation to move towards it. By doing so, you might just influence, inspire or empower someone else!

Quiz yourself[edit]


Complete the following sentences using what you have learned.

Self-determination theory is based on three

needs (in alphabetical order):




suggests that adolescence is a time of


Conformity as a result of the desire to be socially accepted is called



__________ groups are more influential than ____________ groups.

Low-status; high status
Middle-class; upper-class
High-status; low status
Upper-class; middle-class


Which style of parenting is said to be the most successful for avoidance of risky peer influence?



Which of the following needs are met by involvement in sporting teams? (You may select more than one answer).

Identity formation


True or false - Males are more susceptible to peer influence than females.


See also[edit]


Asch, S. (1955). Opinions and social pressure. Scientific American, 93, 31-35.

Barry, C., & Wentzel, K. (2006). Friend influence on prosocial behaviour: The role of motivational factors and friendship characteristics. Developmental Psychology, 42, 153-163. doi: 10.1037/0012-1649.42.1.153

Baumrind, D. (1971). Current patterns of parental authority. Developmental Psychology, 4, 1-103.

Cameron, M., & MacDougall, C. (2000). Crime prevention through sport and physical activity. Canberra, Australia: Australian Institute of Criminal Justice.

Conway, C., Rancourt, D., Adelman, C., Burk, W., Prinstein, M. (2011). Depression socialisation within friendship groups at the transition to adolescence: The roles of gender and group centrality as moderators of peer influence. Journal of Abnormal Psychology. Advance online publications. doi: 10.1037/a0024779

Chirkov, V., Ryan, R., Kim, Y., & Kaplan, U. (2003). Differentiating autonomy from individualism and independence: A self-determination theory perspective on internalisation of cultural orientation and well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 97-110. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.84.1.97

Deci, E., & Ryan, R. (2008). Self-determination theory: A macrotheory of human motivation, development and health. Canadian Psychology, 49, 182-185. doi: 10.1037/a0012801

Deutsch, M., & Gerard, H. (1955). A study of normative and informational social influences upon individual judgement. The Journal of Abnormal & Social Psychology, 51, 629-636.

Dishion, T., Nelson, S., & Bullock, B. (2004). Premature adolescent autonomy: Parent disengagement and deviant peer process in the amplification of problem behaviour. Journal of Adolescence, 27, 515-530. doi: 10.1016/j.adolescence.2004.06.005

Ellis, W. & Zarbatany, L. (2007). Peer group status as a moderator of group influence on children’s deviant, aggressive, and prosocial behaviour. Child Development, 78, 1240-1254.

Erikson, E. (1968). Identity: Youth and Crisis. Great Britain: Whistable Litho Straker Brothers Ltd.

Gaughan, M. (2006). The gender structure of adolescent peer influence on drinking. Journal of Health and Social Behaviour, 47, 47-61. doi: 10.1177/002214650604700104

Good, J., & Sanchez, D. (2010). Doing gender for different reasons: Why gender conformity positively and negatively predicts self-esteem? Psychology of Women Quarterly, 34, 203-214.

Guay, F., Ratelle, C., & Chanal, J. (2008). Optimal learning in optimal contexts: The role of self-determination in education. Canadian Psychology, 49, 233-240. doi: 10.1037/a0012758

Joussemet, M., Landry, R., & Koestner, R. (2008). A self-determination theory perspective on parenting. Canadian Psychology, 49, 194–200.

Keegan, R., Spray, C., & Harwood, C. (2010). The motivational atmosphere in youth sport: Coach, parent, and peer influences on motivation in specializing sport participants. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 22, 87-105. doi: 10.1080/10413200903421267

Kroger, J. (2000). Ego identity status research in the new millennium. International Journal of Behavioural Development, 24, 145-148.

Latane, B. (1981). The psychology of social impact. American Psychologist, 36, 343-356.

Michell, L., & West, P. (1996). Peer pressure to smoke: the meaning depends on the method. Health Education Research, 11, 39-49.

Miller, S., Loeber, R., & Hipwell, A. (2009). Peer deviance, parenting and disruptive behaviour among young girls. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 37, 139-152. doi: 10.1007/s10802-008-9265-1

Miyajima, T., & Naito, M. (2008). Conformity under indirect group pressure in junior high school students: Effects of normative and informational social influences and task importance. Japanese Journal of Developmental Psychology, 19, 364-374.

Monahan, K., Steinberg, L., & Cauffman, E. (2009). Affiliation with antisocial peers, susceptibility to peer influence, and antisocial behaviour during the transition to adulthood. Developmental Psychology, 45, 1520-1530. doi: 10.1037/a0017417

Mounts, N., & Steinberg, L. (1995). An ecological analysis of peer influence on adolescent grade point average and drug use. Developmental Psychology, 31, 915-922.

Powell, J., & Drucker, A. (1997). The role of peer conformity in the decision to ride with an intoxicated driver. Journal of Alcohol and Drug Education, 43(1), 1-7.

Reinboth, M., & Duda, J. (2006). Perceived motivational climate, need satisfaction and indices of well-being in team sports: A longitudinal perspective. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 7, 269-286. doi: 10.1016/j.psychsport.2005.06.002

Salmivalli, C., Kaukiainen, A., Kaistaniemi, L., & Lagerspetz, K. (1999). Self-evaluated self-esteem, peer evaluated self-esteem, and defensive egotism as predictors of adolescents’ participation in bullying situations. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25, 1268-1278. doi: 10.1177/0146167299258008

Schachter, E., & Ventura, J. (2008). Identity agents: Parents as active and reflective participants in their children's identity formation. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 18, 449-476.

Steinberg, L. & Monahan, K. (2007). Age differences in resistance to peer influence. Developmental Psychology, 43, 1531-1542. doi: 10.1037/0012-1649.43.6.1531

Sugimura, K., & Shimizu, N. (2010). The role of peers as agents of identity formation in japanese first-year university students. Identity: An International Journal of Theory and Research, 10, 106-121. doi: 10.1080/15283481003711734

Tarrant, M. (2002). Adolescent peer groups and social identity. Social Development, 11, 110-123.

Veronneau, M., Koestner, R., & Abela, J. (2005). Intrinsic need satisfaction and well-being in children and adolescents: An application of self-determination theory. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 24, 280-292.

Vitoria, P., Salgueiro, M., Silva, S., & De Vries, H. (2009). The impact of social influence on adolescent intention to smoke: Combining types and referents of influence. British Journal of Health Psychology, 14, 681-699. doi: 10.1348/135910709X421341

Wood, M., Read, J., Mitchell, R., & Brand, N. (2004). Do parents still matter? Parent and peer influences on alcohol involvement among recent high school graduates. Psychology of Addictive Behaviours, 18, 19-30. doi: 10.1037/0893-164X.18.1.19

External links[edit]

  • Reach Out Central - Reach Out Central is an online game giving adolescents the chance to acquire and improve life skills through role play situations.
  • Better Health Channel - Advice on peer pressure for parents and teens.