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 John Smith, therapist in Bellingham, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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