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For better or worse, peers influence each other frequently. These effects are often subtle yet significant. For instance, youth who are more intrinsically motivated at school (love learning) can spread their inspiration to other students. Likewise, neighbors who value literacy and education can share their passion for lifelong learning, making it more likely that other residents, both youth and adult, will also embrace more rigorous educational opportunities. Neighbors can influence each other’s happiness without even knowing it. One trick about studying peer effects is that researchers must control for many individual variables because people often project onto others the characteristics that they relish and want others to have. For instance, a very optimistic person may assume that his or her friends are nearly as optimistic as him or her. There are also certain predictable peer processes that can lead to negative peer effects, such as diffusion of responsibility in the presence of more peers (where people assume that someone else will address a problem), low collective efficacy (where peers do not believe they can succeed together), group think (where peers value agreement more than being right), and a fear of intellectual controversy. Some people are more susceptible to negative peer influence than are others.
Positive And Negative Peer Effects
Whether in a school, business, or community, it is naive for a leader to ignore the potential for peer effects. On the other hand, peer effects should not be overestimated either, because people often seek out friends and neighbors who are somewhat similar to them. In general, peer effects are fairly modest when scientific studies appropriately control for an individual’s social status, personality, motivation, prior skills, earlier behavior, or previous achievement. However, the effects of peers are significant enough that a savvy leader will benefit from being aware of them. For instance, school leaders often have a top-down view of influence, as if it mostly flows from principals to teachers and from teachers to students. However, there is growing research to show that peers influence one another’s intrinsic motivation to learn, such that peers who are surrounded by other more inspired peers, gradually become more inspired themselves. Ellen Skinner and Michael Belmont found that the collective motivation level of these peers then influences the way in which the teacher communicates with students in subsequent months, suggesting that peers eventually influence not only one another but also the leaders with whom they interact. Likewise, peers with higher vocabularies utter more advanced words, and this leads to those around them being exposed to richer verbal input, above and beyond the effects of the school curriculum.
According to research by John Mark Froil-and and his colleagues at Purdue University, parents influence one another through their neighborhood social networks, sharing ideas about child development and encouraging one another to read more with their young children. Even a story that a parent tells about going to a museum or library with his or her child can subtly and unintentionally encourage another parent to contemplate going to intellectually stimulating places more often, such as libraries, museums, zoos, and aquariums. Furthermore, whether they realize it or not, neighbors may influence one another’s happiness levels. In fact, James Fowler and Nicholas Christakis found that neighbors are most likely to influence the happiness of other neighbors with whom they interact directly on a frequent basis, but they can also influence the happiness of neighbors whom they rarely encounter, through other neighbors. In other words, happy people might be spreading happiness to friends of neighbors without attempting to influence them. Conversely, they can also spread negative emotions and beliefs. In fact, neighbors who believe that they can collectively make their neighborhood a better place are more likely to create safer neighborhoods where youth thrive, whereas neighbors who do not believe that they can affect their neighborhood are less likely to mentor youth and watch out for one another’s property. These neighborhoods have higher crime rates, a greater fear of crime, and higher rates of associated psychological disorders.
In the workplace and broader community are additional positive and negative peer effects that have been studied. For instance, David W. Johnson and Roger Johnson, the creators of social interdependence theory, have found that work groups have more success when they believe in constructive controversy, rather than fearing disagreement. Teams better take advantage of multidisciplinary insights when they see initial disagreement as an opportunity to grow through considering multiple vantage points and coming to a deeper understanding of a problem. On the other hand, when they look at controversy as a high risk for group dissolution or individual rejection, they do not share their divergent thoughts, and the productivity of the team suffers. Such a team is at risk of groupthink, which entails making poor decisions because the team cares more about apparent unity than making well-informed and well-thought-out decisions.
Sometimes, people assume that there is safety in numbers, and the more the merrier; however, research on the social diffusion of responsibility indicates that people will be less likely to voluntarily help others in danger when there are more peers present. This is a sort of generic peer effect in which greater numbers of people contribute to less sense of individual responsibility. People who are highly independent or have high levels of honor or altruism may be less susceptible to this phenomenon. In schools, this diffusion of responsibility has been overcome in some cases by training students not to merely be passive bystanders when students are being bullied, but rather to activate their peacemaking and conflict resolution skills. Just because the phenomenon exists does not mean that people cannot overcome it through strength of character or through strategic training.
Promoting Motivation, Happiness, Safety, And Success Through Peers
There is the potential to more quickly spread motivation, happiness, family literacy, and neighborhood safety through peers, rather than solely relying on the influence of authorities, rules, role models, and leaders. However, more intervention research involving strategically diffusing change via peer groups is needed in schools, communities, and corporations. Social networks in schools, neighborhoods, and workplaces are all potential entries for diffusing well-being. In fact, recent studies suggest that positive and negative emotions are shared and spread through social media networks on various platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram. The exponential growth in social media networks suggests that people hunger for such connection, and this is in accordance with various social psychological theories. Ignoring social networks and peer influences in any domain of life will likely lead to less effective leadership and less healthy environments.
- Bissell-Havran, Joanna and Eric Loken. “The Role of Friends in Early Adolescents’ Academic Self-Competence and Intrinsic Value for Math and English.” Journal of Youth and Adolescence, v.38/1 (2009).
- Froiland, John Mark. Inspired Childhood: Parents Raising Motivated, Happy, and Successful Students From Preschool to College. Seattle, WA: Amazon,
- Froiland, John Mark, Douglas R. Powell, and Karen E. “Relations Among Neighborhood Social Networks, Home Literacy Environments, and Children’s Expressive Vocabulary in Suburban At-Risk Families.” School Psychology International, v.35 (2014).
- Froiland, John Mark, Douglas R. Powell, Karen E. Diamond, and Seung-Hee Claire Son. “Neighborhood Socioeconomic Well-Being, Home Literacy, and Early Literacy Skills of At-Risk Preschoolers.” Psychology in the Schools, v.50/8 (2013).
- Radel, Rémi, Philippe Sarrazin, Pascal Legrain, and Cameron Wild. “Social Contagion of Motivation Between Teacher and Student: Analyzing Underlying Processes.” Journal of Educational Psychology, 102/3 (2010).