What is peer pressure?

Quick Answer
A peer is any person who approximately shares one’s age, social status, and interests. Peer pressure to experiment with alcohol or drugs is predictive of substance use, especially among youth.
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Conceptual Issues

Biological development may vary among peers. Children and adolescents may or may not have a single best friend and may join different social groups with different norms; their relationships with parents may vary too. These differences must be considered when studying the influence of peers on one another’s behaviors.

Often, this influence is tested by gathering a self-report of the target person’s behavior (for example, substance use and sexual behavior) and also by measuring that target’s report of a peer’s behavior. These measurements are then correlated. The typical finding is that the target’s behavior is related systematically to a peer’s behavior, and this is taken as evidence of peer influence. Although there is abundant evidence of peer influence for substance use and abuse using this strategy, this effect may be inflated because of serious methodological artifacts.

In 2012, the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University released the results of its annual back-to-school survey and highlighted an increased influence of digital social media as a form of peer pressure regarding substance use. Of the more than one thousand students between the ages of twelve and seventeen surveyed, 70 percent responded that seeing pictures of other teens consuming alcohol or using drugs such as marijuana posted on sites such as Facebook encouraged them to engage in similar behavior.

Science of Peer Influence

Peer influence indexed through self-reports ignores a number of alternative processes that could produce positive correlations between a target person’s substance use and that of a peer.

One alternative process is called common developmental trajectory. Two peers of identical age may also be developing biologically in a similar way and can thus display and promote similar behaviors (such as substance use or sexual behavior) at the same time. What may appear as peer influence is actually a common developmental trajectory.

Group norms too can affect the behavior of peers similarly. A person may be a member of a group that values alcohol and drug consumption, and all members of the group share a similar attitude toward the behavior. This is a mutual influence effect.

Multiple groups can have different norms regarding substance use, and there can be more variability among groups than among individuals within groups. The ecological context can affect the behavior of group members; the substance use of adolescents in a peer group can be affected by the substance use of the adults in their community. This feature of social ecology causes members within the same environment to behave similarly.

If one were to consider communities in which adult substance use was low and other communities in which adult substance use was high, the ecological model would predict greater adolescent substance use in the latter than in the former. Peers may also selectively form relationships with peers similar to them; the similarity of their behavior is not necessarily the result of one peer’s influence on another, but is, instead, a form of selective relationship formation. For example, female adolescents who have experienced parental abuse may form relationships and engage in risky behavior that are ultimately consequences of their shared developmental experiences and not necessarily peer influence effects.

Empirical Findings

Only recently has peer influence research on substance use acknowledged and attempted to control for the different causal mechanisms that can produce artificial evidence of peer influence. The use of statistical methods to isolate the peer influence effect, after controlling for other effects, yields statistically significant, though modest, peer influence effects on substance use.

In 2010, researchers reported that “a 10 percent increase in close friend drinking will increase the likelihood of drinking by more than 2 percent” and that “a 10 percent increase in drinking among grade-level peers is associated with a 4 percent increase in individual drinking.” Similarly, in 2005, researchers concluded that, after controlling for possible artifacts, the peer influence effect of a close friend on binge drinking was relatively weak. To the extent that there was a peer influence effect on adolescents’ binge drinking, both peers had evidenced similar developmental histories and dissatisfaction with the parental relationship.

One possibility for this outcome is that when an adolescent’s relationship with a parent is unsatisfactory, that adolescent’s behavior may be more easily influenced by peers. In a 2002 study of young adults aged nineteen to twenty-five years, researchers found that a target person’s same- and opposite-gender friends’ binge-drinking and cigarette use was associated with their own use of these substances. Because alcohol and tobacco are legal substances, their use may be more acceptable in the peer group, especially when group members use these substances.


Developmental scientists recognize that behavior is a function of the individual; the social environment, including peers; and the ecological context. To understand peer influence on substance use and abuse, one must understand the determinants at multiple levels of analysis. The peer influence effect must be disentangled from other causal mechanisms that also have implications for substance use and abuse interventions.

If, for example, adolescent substance use is determined more strongly by group norms than by the influence of specific peers, then interventions should target these norms rather than emphasize resistance to persuasive messages by peers to use substances. In future work, it will be particularly important to understand the moderation of peer effects on substance use and also how the effect is mediated. It is important to recognize that peer influence on substance use is much more complicated than previously recognized, and may not be as strong as once thought.


Ali, Mir M., and Deborah S. Swyer. “Social Network Effects in Alcohol Consumption among Adolescents.” Addictive Behaviors 35 (2010): 337–42. Print.

Andrews, Judy A., and Hyman Hops. “The Influence of Peers on Substance Use.” Handbook of Drug Use Etiology: Theory, Methods, and Empirical Findings. Ed. L. Scheier. Washington, DC: Amer. Psychological Assn., 2010. Print.

Andrews, Judy A., et al. “The Influence of Peers on Young Adult Substance Use.” Health Psychology 21 (2002): 349–57. Print.

Dodge, Kenneth A., Thomas J. Dishion, and Jennifer E. Lansford. “Deviant Peer Influences in Intervention and Public Policy for Youth.” Social Policy Report 20.1 (2006): 2–19. Print.

Jaccard, James, Hart Blanton, and Tonya Dodge. “Peer Influence on Risky Behavior: An Analysis of the Effects of a Close Friend.” Developmental Psychology 41 (2005): 135–47. Print.

"Survey: 'Digital Peer Pressure' Fueling Drug, Alcohol Use in High School Students." CBS News. CBS Interactive, 22 Aug. 2012. Web. 30 Oct. 2015.