How Does Peer Pressure Affect Educational Investments?

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Leonardo Bursztyn and Robert Jensen recently conducted research to determine the impact peer pressure has on educational expenditures. They discovered that students typically prefer to uphold societal norms over demonstrating their academic prowess. The difficulties of being ignored by their peers are common for students who are thought to be better than their peers. A straightforward natural study was conducted to demonstrate. Computer-based classes were given a performance leaderboard in a school. It was noted that grades of the students who usually performed well, declined while some of the poor performing students improved. Students agreed to have their results publicized, though it depended on who their peers were at the time. For those who were in an honors class, they were more acceptable to have their results publicized as compared to those in a non-honors class. It was noted that decisions made by the students were highly affected by their peers.

About the research

Over the years, it has been observed that students want to fit in. They want to belong to a social group in school thus are sometimes forced to take part in some actions so as to gain social approval. This research aims at finding out how the students’ involvement with their peers affects the educational investment in the school. Two types of researches were carried out; natural experiment and field experiment. The natural experiment was carried out in over 100 high schools in the United States. At first, results were private, and no student knew the performance of the other students. Suddenly, the system changed, and a performance leaderboard introduced. Results were now being given in public as opposed to the initial secrecy. The results found were interesting. Students who used to perform well in the past started dropping in their grades to avoid having their names on the leaderboard. The students assumed that if they were seen as top scorers, they would lose their position in their social groups. They believed they would be teased or called names because of their performance. Therefore, they opted to fail themselves as long as they maintained their social standings. The students who were performing weakly were motivated and started performing better, so as to prove a point to their peers. All in all, it all came down to the peer groups the students were in.

In the field experiment, four low-income high schools were chosen in Los Angeles. Eleventh-grade students were offered complimentary access to an online SAT preparatory class. A survey was taken randomly by giving the students sign-up form to fill asking them whether the results would be private to all except those in the room, or the results would be private to all including those in the room. The defining words were ‘including’ and ‘except.' Both honors and non-honors classes took part in this experiment. It was noted that, in the non-honors class, when sign up was 11% lower when other people would see they are signing up as compared to when their signing up was kept completely private. It is observed that sign-up in non-honors class is mainly affected by the people who will see the results. Students have a choice to pick an honors class, or a non-honors class in the case where there are two classes offer the same subjects. Two students in an honors class would not mind having their signing up publicized, but this is when they are with their peers in an honors class. In case they are in a non-honors class, the peers will determine their response. Note that the students are the same, but the circumstances are different. Therefore, the people they associate with at the time do much to influence their responses to queries at that point. In both classes, there are students who are more interested in popularity. These students are less likely to take part in issues where the decision is public rather than when it is private. They all follow the trend of the social norm and want to be seen as the best in the eyes of the society, while at the same time covering up the real story about them.


Peer pressure mainly affects adolescents. Therefore, a study on high school students was the best option in regard to knowing the effects peers have in regard to educational investments matters. Peers of young age usually influence each other’s decision. At this point in life, most students are more focused to being socially accepted by their age mates, rather than how their future would be. Most students have less interest in attaining a good grade while in the process becoming socially unacceptable.

This research showed the influence peers have on their education investment and efforts. Students prefer looking at their current status rather than on their future endorsements. When faced with a choice between their futures which involves studies and passing grades and being socially acceptable among their peers in the present, they choose the present. They rather fail and get poor grades, on purpose, rather than get good grades and are socially sidelined. Both experiments had the same results meaning peers have a large role to play when it comes to educational efforts students put into their school work.

The problem with this research experiment is that it focuses simply whether students would agree to have their results viewed by their peers. This observation is not the only factor that affects educational investments in students among their peers. This research could have been wider and covered more areas on how peers affect their fellows. For instance, some students come from wealthy backgrounds thus do not see the need to study hard since they are already well off. For some students, they have not grown up in environments which cherish a formal education thus are in school just for the sake. Theses variability of backgrounds also affects the answers the students could have given and how they responded to the natural experiment.

The Myth of Peer Pressure


Michael T. Ungar, in his 2000 study of peer pressure, put forth the theory that the concept of peer pressure may indeed be a myth. He based this idea on his study of 41 high-risk students in a larger study “investigating the relationship between the process of empowerment and the mental health of these high-risk students” (Ungar, 2000). In this research, Ungar used information gleaned from quantifiable case studies, family consultations, and focus groups to identify peer group relations and establish whether peer pressure is really a component of youth culture. As Ungar (2000) noted “Myths shape thinking and provide a convenient way to organize thoughts and experiences” and because of this fact, peer pressure may be more of a construct of the adult population than the adolescents.

About the research

Ungar begins his research with a statement about identity and how it is formed. He notes that “marginalized, high-risk youth compete with their parents, mental health professionals, and the broader community for control of the defining labels that contribute to the construction of self-identity” (Ungar, 2000). Per Ungar, any identity that at-risk youth attain relies much upon the adults in their life and how their environment influences them. Ungar suggests that peer pressure is an adult construct to explain some of the negative influences that come along with growing up in less-than-ideal circumstances. He also notes that there are those that interpret adolescent behavior in a much more positive light. He brings to light that Pombeni, Kirchler, and Palmonari (1990) stated that there is no direct correlation between adolescence in general and bad behavior or bad life choices and stated that “attachment to the peer group helps the young person avoid the problem of alienation” (as cited in Ungar, 2000, p. 169). Ungar’s study concludes also that the myth of peer pressure as always having a negative connotation, is counteracted by the many youth who use peer pressure as a positive influence in their life like when they participate in activities like sports, clubs, and other activities which bring them into contact with other like-minded individuals.


Ungar notes in his research that peer pressure may be a myth concocted by adults to rationalize the bad behavior of some youth. For example, when a teen begins to smoke, drink, or otherwise rebel against authority, then it must be peer pressure that is making them act that way because “Our Little Johnny or Jane” would never do anything like that simply based on their own independent choices. Ungar does a good job at making his point that there are positive aspects to peer pressure as well as negative aspects, however, this writer is left unconvinced that peer pressure is a myth in the sense that Ungar intends. Pressure is a part of everyday life and no matter what label you put on it, it exists. Without pressure of some sort there would be no advances in science, philosophy, or any other human endeavor. So, to state that peer pressure does not exist is a somewhat naïve position to take.

Combat or Cooperation


Researchers Thomas F. Tate and Randall L. Copa put forth an interesting opinion in this research study. They state that there are only two modes of operation for the members within any group whether it be a church choir or a street gang; defy or comply. So, to relate this to a high school environment, Tate and Copa (2010) make the point that “the task of the staff is to create a condition in which students see more benefit in cooperating than they do in combating staff efforts” and that in doing this, the staff will use the force of positive peer pressure among the students themselves to move forward toward their combined goals. Tate and Copa also note that the most important thing not to do when trying to gain this cooperation from students is to establish a defined “pecking order” because these structures tend to squelch group cooperation. They point out that instead of a “pecking order” that a natural hierarchy be allowed to form which give the staff oversight responsibilities but does not dictate exactly how things are to be done, leaving the students to use their creativity and thereby making them more a part of the project.

About the Research

Tate and Copa explain that a cooperative peer group can easily be corrupted by negative influences but that with proper handling of these influences the group can still achieve their goal. They also state that if negative influences are left unchecked they can lead to the undesirable outcome that “conflicting cliques form or members leave the group” (Tate & Copa, 2010). When undesirable outcomes are brought into a school setting, where members cannot easily just quit the group, the result is often an atmosphere of tyranny or a place where the rule is “do what I say because I say to.” Some situations where a “pecking order” is allowed to flourish causes bullies to take over control and ride rough shod over the victims in any particular instance. Tate and Copa (2010) make the point very succinctly by stating “Staff may applaud themselves because bullies seem employed in more productive, less adversarial roles. In reality, bullies learn to become better bullies and victims better victims.” By this reasoning, it is more effective to have the staff more involved in the process rather than standing back and “letting the inmates run the asylum.” This will create the cooperative atmosphere which abrogates the negative peer pressures and leads to the smooth interaction of adults and adolescents.


The research done in this study makes an excellent point of how school systems need to shape the activities that go on within their walls. An atmosphere of cooperation between students and staff will always make for a more successful school environment than one where coercive students are allowed to form “pecking orders” and decide for themselves in which direction things should proceed. This is not to say that the students should not be allowed to be creative in what they do and that staff should impose its will wherever they see fit, that leads to coercive environments which do nothing to achieve goals. However, positive peer pressure to achieve goals and foster a good working environment in schools is also an important aspect of any efficacious organization or group.


Bursztyn, L., & Jensen, R. (2015). How Does Peer Pressure Affect Educational Investments?

The Quarterly Journal of Economics, qjv021.

Kittredge, K. (2000). Today's Youth Face Pressures from Many Unprecedented Factors, Not Only Peers. (cover story). Brown University Child & Adolescent Behavior Letter, 16(6), 1.

Tate, T. F., & Copas, R. L. (2010). Combat or Cooperation? Reclaiming Children & Youth, 18(4), 32-36.

Ungar, M. T. (2000). The Myth of Peer Pressure. Adolescence, 35(137), 167.

June 26, 2023
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