In a recent study published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, researchers take on the task of deciphering how peers influence certain types of risky behaviours amongst college students.
Studying the effects of peer influence on behaviour is challenging. This is because understanding the cause and effect of peer influence is similar to the age-old ‘which came first: the chicken or the egg?’ problem. Do people behave in certain ways because they are mimicking their peers, or do people choose their friends based on their similar behaviours?
To understand this causal relationship, researchers conducted a study to explore the effects of peer influences amongst college students on three different types of behaviours: aggressive behaviour, smoking, and concurrent sexual partnering. These were of particular interest because they can have negative consequences later in life. Aggressive behaviour is often linked to employment difficulties and violence amongst intimate partners, smoking is a preventable risk factor in the development of chronic diseases and death, and risky sexual behaviour has been linked to unplanned pregnancies and sexually-transmitted diseases.
Researchers used data from the Roommate Study, which was a web survey that collected data about college health-risk behaviours and pre-college health risk behaviours, and information about participant’s families. Approximately 2000 individuals were included in the study.
Based on the results, the degree of peer influence was determined by an individual’s behavioural predispositions, gender, and the nature of the behaviour in question. Behavioural predisposition was found to be the most fundamental factor. The influence of peers on certain behaviours is found to be greater in individuals who are more prone to engage in those types of behaviours versus those who are not.
Gender also plays a significant role. In this study, it was found that men are more susceptible than women to the influences of their peers when it comes to aggressive behaviours. Smoking is also gendered. In colleges, there tends to be a perception that men who smoke are considered to be masculine, and females as rule-breakers. In this study, it was found that the negativity surrounding female smoking might result in females not smoking even when they are living with a roommate who does.
It was found that there is little peer influence in obtaining concurrent sexual partners. This may be because such behaviours are private and require consent between participating individuals. Therefore, peer influence may not be as great in these circumstances.
The evidence of this study seems to indicate that peer influences do not work consistently across all behaviours. Instead, gender and predispositions to certain behaviours must be considered to enhance our understanding of peer influence.
Written By: Nicole Pinto, HBSc