Fitting In: Exploring the Emotional Dimension of Adolescent Peer Pressure

Article excerpt


The general public and academic researchers alike have long recognized the importance of peer relations in the lives of young people. However, three issues are notably absent from the dominant models of peer influence. First, these models neglect the affective dimension of a youth's experiences. Second, the models tend to ascribe a passive role to the youth, a stance also reflected methodologically by the absence of the youth's voice. Third, the motivational component remains unspecified; that is, why does a youth conform to peer influence? Using a framework drawn from recent social psychological work on shame and related feelings, the present study collected qualitative data from twelve college students. The findings indicate that negative emotions play a role in peer influence, particularly feelings of inadequacy and isolation, as well as feeling ridiculed, all of which may be indicative of shame. Thus, shame-related feelings may be instrumental in motivating individuals to conform. A variety of directions for future research are suggested.


The general public and academic researchers alike have long recognized the importance of youths' peer relations. Adolescents themselves also have acknowledged the influence of peers. In the U.S., for example, a survey of 13- to 17-year-olds found that 40% cited peer influence when asked why they thought the Columbine High School shooting happened. A stormy picture emerged, with these teenagers conjecturing that the shooters had been "taunted by other students," "picked on," "teased," and "made to feel like outcasts," as well as felt "left out" and "lonely" (Gallup Poll Release, 1999). As teens struggle with identity development in the context of group attachments, such experiences are likely to engender strong feelings.

It is precisely this affective dimension that is so often missing from inquiry into the process of peer influence among adolescents. In particular, attention must be directed to three interrelated issues. First, the emotional dimension of teens' peer relations should be included when formulating explanations, rather than relying solely on behavioral and/or cognitive constructs, which has been the case in traditional models. Second, these models tend to ascribe a passive role to teens, a stance that is reflected methodologically by the absence of their voice. Finally, by exploring the subjective, emotional experiences of teens, greater insight may be gained into why peer influence is so powerful (i.e., the motivational component of conformity).

Human emotions, of course, are many, but Scheff (1990) has argued that shame is critical in regard to social influence. The present study investigated whether shame plays a role in adolescent conformity in the face of perceived peer pressure. Students' responses to semistructured interviews were examined in order to identify themes that might indicate the presence of shame-related emotions generally, but also specifically regarding the phenomenon of peer influence in adolescent alcohol consumption, a topic of ongoing concern.

Review of the Literature

Peer pressure is a specific instance of social influence, which typically produces conformity to a particular way of acting or thinking. That peers are influential among adolescents is not surprising, given the amount of time they spend outside the familial domain (Csikszentmihalyi & Larson, 1984). The influence of peers increases relative to other sources (e.g., parents) from childhood to adolescence, and appears to peak, at least for antisocial behavior, in the ninth grade (Berndt, 1979). Of course, this does not mean parental influence disappears altogether. Parental socialization remains important, although the exact balance between parents and peers varies depending on the specific behavior or belief, as well as family qualities, such as degree of bonding and closeness (Kandel & Andrews, 1987). …


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