The Presence of Peers Changes Self-Worth and Behavioral Choices

Peer pressure is cited as a driving factor (conscious or otherwise) behind any number of harmful choices: lying, cheating, stealing, binge drinking, reckless behavior, illicit drug use, and even bullying and violence. This isn’t isolated to adolescents: these behaviors show up in groups of adults, as well. But why does the presence of others encourage us to do things we might not otherwise? After all, most the behaviors listed above come with negative consequences: feelings of guilt in the short term and in some cases, the need for counseling and therapy years later if the behavior becomes a pattern.

Researchers at Temple University have discovered why teens are more likely to act recklessly when they’re in groups than when they’re alone. (Click to download a PDF of the published study.) Common sense says teens take risks because they want to look cool or show off in front of their friends. But in fact, spending time with friends is so stimulating to the reward center of a teen’s brain that he or she views risky behavior in light of those positive feelings, placing a greater emphasis on an action’s potential rewards than its potential risks. In these situations, the presence of peers influences individuals to put a positive spin on something that they might not see so positively if they were alone.

But sometimes, the opposite is true, and the presence of peers makes us see things in a negative light that we might have been fine with otherwise. Take, for example, Facebook. Most people share only the best and brightest of their thoughts and photos, leaving out experiences that may paint them as depressing, boring or uninteresting. Yet we all have moments—and days—that are exactly that. By self-editing, we create online personas that are more positive and picturesque than our actual lived lives, even if only slightly. As a result, our friends’ lives appear more picturesque, too, and we underestimate the prevalence of negative emotions they experience. This phenomenon hasn’t gone unnoticed: “Facebook makes us all sad because everyone is happy but us,” writes journalist Leila Brillson. As more people recognize that they’re happy with their lives until they compare them to others via social networking, how will we react to this understanding? Will we be more upfront about our own negative news, sharing feelings of depression and disappointment online? Or will we avoid the social networks that trigger feelings of inadequacy?

© Copyright 2011 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • pablo


    February 1st, 2011 at 12:59 PM

    well its natural for anybody to making different choices when they are with peers.but this difference is usually minimal.
    but if this difference does start to become big that is when it becomes a problem.and frankly speaking I would consider a person who behaves very differently when with peers as a fake person!

  • H2O


    February 1st, 2011 at 2:56 PM

    I have not observed too many adults change their behavior due to the presence of other people around them.If anything,it is only to act more sophisticated(something that everybody does as soon as they get out of the comfort of their home).

    Teens are more vulnerable to changes due to the presence of peers.

  • brendon m

    brendon m

    February 2nd, 2011 at 3:51 AM

    @H2):Everybody acts different when there are people around,and more so when there are a few particular people around.It is enhanced for teens only because they pay more attention to things like being the center of attention and also about impressing other people with their acts.But this does not undermine the fact that all age groups do exhibit this behavior.

  • Austin


    February 2nd, 2011 at 5:34 AM

    When you have a group of friends surrounding you who are encouraging you to make poor choices, chances are that when you are a teen you are going to fall prey to these tactics. Kids in groups like that are going to feed off of one another and are usually trying to one up each other in some way. Unfortunately that usually means that someone is going to start some trouble and then everyone else is going to follow closely behind. The only thing that we as parents can do is to try to teach our kids at home how to make smarter choices, but sometimes the power of peer pressure is always going to win out.

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