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In Assessing Risk, Younger Teens Turn to Peers, Not Adults, Study Finds

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This is a cross post from Inside School Research.

If all of your friends jumped off that bridge, would you do it too? Well, it depends on how old you are, according to a new study in Psychological Science.

If you are in elementary school, the answer is probably "No way!" And if you are about to graduate from high school, the answer may well be, "What does Dad say?" But at the start of adolescence, students may just shrug; of all age groups, they are most likely to jump on the assumption that other teenagers must know what they are doing.

Researchers led by Lisa Joanna Knoll, a psychologist at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London, in the United Kingdom, asked 563 visitors to the London Science Museum to rate the riskiness of common activities such as cutting down a darkened alley or crossing the street against a light. After one round of risk assessment on a 1 to 10 scale, the guests were shown a randomly generated "rating" labeled as being given by an adult or teenager, and later asked to rate the activities again.

In general, all groups tended to alter their risk assessments based on those of others, but the older they got, the more they stuck to their original ratings. Moreover, children under age 11, and teenagers and young adults ages 15 and older both were more likely to change their response in reaction to an adult's perception of how risky an activity was. Of all age groups, only young adolescents ages 12 to 14 were more likely to favor another teenager's view of risk over an adult's view, but throughout adolesence peer and adult influence ran neck and neck.

age teen.JPG"We cannot say whether teenagers want to show off or feel safer in a group," Knoll told me. "We can only speculate that adolescents seek to conform to the same-aged influence group, not because they trust the ratings of teenagers more than they trust the ratings of adults, but because they want to be accepted by their peer group (in this case the teenage group)."

What's Behind Peer Pressure?

The findings are in line with emerging evidence suggesting adolescence may be as rapid and critical a period of development in social skills as the toddler years are in cognitive development. Teenagers' seeming obsession with peers—so often bemoaned by adults—may be critical to students' developing healthy adult relationships.

Knoll said she was surprised that teenagers responded strongly to a totally imaginary peer, even when it was made clear that no one else would know what how they rated a situation. Previous brain-imaging research found that teenagers showed stronger risk-and-reward responses to a game when they thought their play might be viewed by peers, even when no one was in the room. 

Moreover, prior studies have shown that teenagers regularly overestimate how often other teenagers are engaging in risky behaviors. "Adolescence is the time when individuals begin to explore their independence, they start to spend more time with their peers than children do and social influence tends to change," Knoll said.

Knoll's findings give further evidence that traditional "scared straight"-style programs may be the wrong approach for teenagers, but, "this social influence effect works in both directions," she said. "Our young teenage participants lowered their risk rating when other teenagers judged the risk as less risky and increased their risk ratings when other teenagers judged the risk as more risky, respectively."

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