The Myth of Peer Pressure

By Ungar, Michael T. | Adolescence, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

The Myth of Peer Pressure


Ungar, Michael T., Adolescence


ABSTRACT

The construct of peer pressure was examined as part of a qualitative study of the determinants of mental health for 41 high-risk adolescents. While the concept of peer pressure enables adults to explain youths' troubling behaviors, content analysis of the participants' accounts of their lives revealed peer pressure to be a myth. The youths indicated that adoption of the behavior and appearance of peers was a consciously employed strategy to enhance personal and social power. Association with peers was used to construct and maintain health-promoting identities that challenged the stigmatizing labels given to them by others. Three developmental stages to this process of identity construction were identified. During stage one, vulnerable youths learn to maintain a singular self-definition through interaction with peers. In stage two, youths purposefully use their peer relations to experiment with multiple identities. During stage three, youths collaborate with peers as equal partners in the construction of one o r more identities for which they find acceptance.

INTRODUCTION

The construct of peer pressure was examined as part of a larger study investigating the relationship between the process of empowerment and the mental health of high-risk adolescents (Ungar, 1995). It can be defined as pressure from peers to "do something or to keep from doing something else, no matter if you personally want to or not" (Clasen & Brown, 1985, P. 458), and has been used to explain young people's behavior. In the present research, adolescents' personal accounts were compared with data collected from clinical files, family interviews, and focus groups in order to understand peer group interactions and determine whether peer pressure is actually a part of youth culture.

Myths shape thinking and provide a convenient way to organize thoughts and experiences (Berger & Luckmann, 1966; Eagleton, 1983; Maturana & Varela, 1987). While people contribute to the meaning of myths through participation in social discourse, or collective conversation, the decision as to which myths become prominent and how they are interpreted depends on who has the most power in that discourse (Foucault, 1961/1965, 1972/1980; Weedon, 1987). It may be adults, not teens, whose description of events is reflected in the term "peer pressure."

Authoring Identity During Adolescence

Identity is the story people tell about themselves (McAdams, 1985, 1995). The language used to construct that story depends on the interpersonal context (Gergen & Davis, 1985; Maturana & Varela, 1987). Marginalized, high-risk youth compete with their parents, mental health professionals, and the broader community for control of the defining labels that contribute to the construction of self-identity. The outcome may have serious consequences. Tyler, Tyler, Tommasello, and Connolly (1992), examining the lives of homeless youths in Bogota, Colombia, and Washington, DC, noted: "When I use the words street youth, delinquents, and alienated kids to describe these youth, I am also separating them from society by words that become labels. Such labels are often inaccurate, stigmatizing, and damaging not only to the children's self-esteem, but to their survival" (p. 206). Similarly, evaluating a self-esteem program for working-class and underclass girls, Simmons and Parsons (1983) found that class bias inherent in th e indicators of healthy functioning inadvertently made the girls devalue their knowledge and competencies: they had lower self-esteem after participating in the training. Simmons and Parsons concluded that the girls were shown "psychologically unreachable roles and coping skills," which heightened their "awareness of the discrepancies between their own lives and the possible alternatives" (p. 922). They came to view themselves as merely "streetwise" (their label) when exposed to middle-class social norms.

While the relationship between the peer group and misconduct has received considerable attention (see Batcher, 1987; Brown, Clasen, & Eicher, 1986; Brown & Lohr, 1987; Clasen & Brown, 1985; Coleman, 1961; Hurrelmann & Engel, 1992; Matza, 1964; Newman & Newman, 1976; Pearl, Bryan, & Herzog, 1990; Simon, Dent, & Sussman, 1997; Ziervogel, Ahmed, Fisher, & Robertson, 1997), the personal agency of individual members has often been ignored. …

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