Infographic: The Science of Peer Pressure

By Matthew Wheeland - October 19, 2011
Infographic: The Science of Peer Pressure

Infographic: The Science of Peer Pressure

The Science of Peer Pressure

Research has linked peer pressure to many negative behaviors, but that’s not the whole story. More studies are showing the positive side of peer pressure. As it turns out, peer pressure can lead to all sorts of positive outcomes, including increased adoption of green behaviors.

This is Your Brain on Peer Pressure

The human brain places more value on winning in a social setting. In peer pressure studies, researchers have found the parts of the brain associated with rewards—the striatum and medial prefrontal cortex—showed significantly higher activity when a participant wins among peers versus winning alone.

Friendship is Magic

Zaps Pain

One study showed that male undergraduates were able to tolerate pain (in the form of mild electric shocks) more comfortably while watching models who they though were receiving the same shocks but whose facial expressions showed calm tolerance. The group watching these models reported lower levels of pain than those watching models who looked like they were in pain or no model at all.


Helps You Lose Weight

In a two-year randomized weight loss trial, group support was associated with sustained weight loss. With group support, people lost an average of 13 pounds (4.9 kg). Without group support, people lost 2.2 pounds (1.8 kg).


Makes You More Generous

Being surrounded by generous peers can make an individual more generous as well. When children have a generous model, they’re more likely to be generous themselves. Effects are strongest when role models create positive action that’s rewarded, rather than negative action that’s punished.


Raises Math Scores

In the 1970′s, using Chinese-American students as inspiration, UC Berkeley researcher Uri Treisman introduced peer-to-peer workgroups for African American college students in advanced math classes to see if it would lead to better grades.

Workshop students

  • Earning a B- or better in calculus: 56%
  • Drop-out rate: 3%
  • Graduating with a math-based major: 44%
Non-workshop students
  • Earning a B- or better in calculus: 21%
  • Drop-out rate: 25%
  • Graduating with a math-based major: 10%

Discourages Terrorism

Tina Rosenberg, author of Join the Club, points to STREET, a South London Muslim youth center as one possible example of positive peer pressure at work. Many of the center’s clients are “radicalized” young men re-entering society from prison and holding politically extremist views. The center includes anti-violence counseling by volunteers who once held similar opinions and share similar histories. Finding peaceful ways to respond is held up as the new social norm in daily discussion groups and Islam’s condemnation of violence is emphasized. Local probation officers report the program is very successful.

Green With Envy: Peer Pressure and the Environment

While many environmental efforts center of spreading information or financial rewards for green choices, peer pressure appears to be the most effective tool in encouraging green behavior.

Everyone’s Doing It

Researchers found that giving Chinese farmers financial incentives to adopt eco-friendly techniques wasn’t as effective as letting them know their neighbors were already using those same techniques.

Power in Numbers

A study placed two different signs in hotel rooms urging guests to reuse towels. The guests who were exposed to the peer group sign were 25 percent more likely to reuse their towels.

All the Cool Kids Are Doing It

In one study, hundreds of middle class homes in San Marcos, California, received doorhangers urging residents to use fans instead of air conditioning. Four different messages were tried.

Reduced energy consumption by less than 3%:

  • You will save $54 a month on your power bill
  • You’ll prevent 262 pounds of greenhouse gases every month.
  • It’s the socially responsible thing to do.
Reduced energy consumption by 10%:
  • 77% of your neighbors already use fans instead of air conditioning.

Solar is Contagious

Peer pressure also contributes to increased solar installations and a decrease in time between installations, making solar a contagious phenomenon.

The probability of someone going solar more than doubles if they live on a block where a neighbor has solar power already. For every 1 percent increase in solar installations in a zip code, there’s a 1 percent decrease in the amount of time until the next solar installation.

Just Say “Know”

In the mid 1980s two researchers, Wesley Perkins and Alan Berkowitz, discovered college students had exaggerated beliefs about how much their peers consumed alcohol. They theorized some students might be basing their drinking behavior on these perceived pseudo-norms.

Thus, social-norms marketing was born. Using newspaper ads, posters, and handouts, Northern Illinois University began the first social-norms marketing campaign to deliver the message that most students had fewer than five drinks when they partied.

By 1999, incidents of heavy drinking (five or more drinks) by Northern Illinois University students was down 44 percent. The technique is moving beyond college campuses, too. Various state health departments are trying social-norms marketing on issues like smoking, seat belts, and safe sex.

Old v. New Models of Behavior Change


  • Fear and/or information driven
  • Pack ‘em into an assembly hall, share scary statistics
  • Declare war on it
  • “The social cure.”
  • Peer-centric models that emphasize collaboration
  • Create visible new norms and a sense of belonging.
Sources: The Ottawa Sun, New York Times, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, University of Chicago Medical Center, University of Notre Dame, “Diversity and Motivation” by Margery B. Ginsberg and Raymond J. Wlodkowski, “Join the Club” By Tina Rosenberg, Wall Street Journal, Vote Solar,

What’s ?

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