Peer Pressure and Learning

There have been many studies on the influence of peer pressure on behavior. One consistent finding is that many of us are influenced by the presence of others. Of course there are wide variations based on the context, the personality of the individual, the age of the individual and the peers, and the difficulty of the task. But peer pressure is often an 800-pound gorilla in the room.

My Take

For example, teenagers are among the most influenced by peer pressure. Their driving is more aggressive and they engage in more risky activities.

But it is not just our kids. One of my favorite examples is that we are more likely to choke on low-challenge activities with people in the room, but less likely to choke on high-challenge activities. This might seem backwards, but my work on motivational psychology provides a clue as to why. Performance on an easy task does not involve a lot of pressure when you are alone. But imagine screwing up an easy task in front of a crowd. How embarrassing!! But if you do well, there is really no benefit because you are supposed to do well on the easy task.

The opposite happens with the high challenge task. There is little risk of failure because it is easily explained away. But if you succeed and all of these people see it, WOW!

Annie Murphy Paul, whose work we have showcased here before, comes to us with a great example of using peer pressure to improve education. We hear so often about the negatives of peer pressure on learning that it is nice to see her counterexample.

As he and other researchers examined the question of why teens were more apt to take risks in the company of other teenagers, they came to suspect that a crowd’s influence need not always be negative. Now some experts are proposing that we should take advantage of the teen brain’s keen sensitivity to the presence of friends and leverage it to improve education.

She frames the idea by reminding us that rewards for teenagers are more intense overall when in the company of their peers. This is true for both positive and negative results. We can imagine this happen either of two opposite effects. It could result in the fear of choking effect in which the teenager engages in more constrained, careful, risk-averse behavior. It could also result in the stretch for outcomes that will impress in which the teenager engages in more exploratory, risk-accepting behavior.

If this were driving, parents might prefer the risk-averse, careful choice. But with education, it might be the opposite. That is what Annie thinks. She cites a study using the Iowa Gambling Task (admittedly not educational) that found teens engaged in more exploratory behavior in the presence of peers and thereby learned more from both positive and negative outcomes. The result – better long term performance.

If we can frame education in this same way, we can exploit the effect to enhance education. Instead of highly constrained, risk-averse, teaching to the standardized test, pedagogical methods, we can set students up in teams of peers and set them off on exploratory learning. We can frame the experience as a high-challenge activity to prime them to be more risk-accepting and imaginative.

Your Turn

Sound promising to you? I don’t want to generalize her conclusions too much, I am clearly speculating a little here. But it seems promising enough to give it a try, doesn’t it?

Image Credit: Alan Levine

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