The Research Is In

How Peer Pressure Undermines Success

Will students pass up academic help based on how their friends feel? A new study suggests they will.

May 22, 2017
© Powell

New research finds that peer pressure can adversely impact important educational decisions.

When SAT prep sign-ups at three high schools were public—meaning that classmates could see who was participating—53 percent of students expressed an interest in the classes. But the participation rate shot up to 80 percent when the sign-ups were offered in a private setting that shielded students from the prying eyes of their peers, according to a study from the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Students in the study said that they expected their SAT scores to go up by at least 100 points by taking the prep package—a bump from the 50th percentile to the 69th percentile—but they were willing to sacrifice that critical improvement to save face with their peers.

“High school students are willing to forgo educational investment opportunities due to concerns about how they will be perceived by their classmates,” the study concludes.

Interestingly, students with widely different views on academic achievement responded to the peer pressure similarly. Economists Leonardo Bursztyn, Georgy Egorov, and Robert Jensen looked at two types of peer groups: one that emphasized academics (students who believe it’s “cool to be smart”) and one that emphasized friendships (those who believe it’s “smart to be cool”). Both groups of students avoided public sign-ups for the SAT prep.

Kids who felt that it’s cool to be smart, the classic overachievers, didn’t want their friends to know they needed academic help. The smart to be cool kids, on the other hand, associated a public declaration of interest in the class with a decline in their popularity.

The takeaway: Don’t underestimate the effect of peer pressure in your school—it’s powerful enough to get students to walk away from even life-changing academic opportunities.

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