The Neuroscience of Peer Pressure
We’ve all experienced it at one point or another. For me it was a sunny day at Magic Mountain and a friend walked into a candy store with me and suggested that we both steal some candy. I absolutely felt some added pressure. “What if I didn’t do it?” The subtle message was that I’d be weak or not belong in some way and that’s our greatest threat as human beings. So I did it.
And the undercover police officer let me know I did it.
While that’s history, a recent study out of Temple University took 14 teenagers, 14 college students, and 12 young adults and put them in front of a driving video game. The game tried to simulate regular driving, having stop lights and having the danger of crashing if you got out of control.
Then the researchers hooked up the participants to a fMRI machine to see where the activity was in their brain while they were driving.
Sometimes the researchers told the participants that their peers were watching them through a camera, while at other times they were driving alone.
The teenagers ran close to 40 percent more yellow lights and had 60 percent more crashes when they thought their friends were watching them. At the same time, the reward center in the brain was lighting up when they thought their friends were watching.
So there something that happens when teens are with friends that ignites the reward center of the brain making it more likely for them to be susceptible to peer pressure. And this isn’t only direct perp pressure.
In a NY Times blog, Laurence Steinberg, an author of the study said, “I think it’s helpful to understand because many parents conceive of peer pressure as kids directly coercing each other into doing things. We’ve shown that just the knowledge that your friends are watching you can increase risky behavior.”
The wonderful thing is that teens are pretty smart. If you explain to them that when their being pressured their brain is tricking them into being susceptible to it, it fosters a sense of awareness, and you can tell them, they don’t have to be controlled by their brain, they can learn to control it and be in control of their lives.
What teenager doesn’t want to be in control of their lives?
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