Peer Effects Essay

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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.


  1. 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).
  2. Froiland, John Mark.  Inspired Childhood: Parents Raising Motivated, Happy, and Successful Students From Preschool to College. Seattle, WA: Amazon,
  3. 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).
  4. 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).
  5. 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).

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