How Friends Change Us
Autonomy, free will, and self determination are all constructs that are held in high esteem in today’s society. The freedom to make decisions and direct our own behavior is critical to our ability to function in today’s world. Are we misleading ourselves by thinking that we are we completely independent?
Do we really have the freedom to make our own decisions? Are our behaviors determined solely by personal choice? Psychological research says no. In fact, research shows that friends may be one of the largest factors influencing our cultural preferences, moods, behavior, and even what we buy.
Friends Influence Music Preferences
A study conducted by Matthew Salganik, Peter Dodds, and Dunkin Watts supports the conclusion that, like it or not, the preferences of others influences how we rate musical selections. These researchers used an interactive web-based platform to collect data from over 14,000 participants to analyze how social influence interacts with song preference.
The data from this study show significant differences between the control group, where individuals made selections without knowledge of other participants’ preferences, and experimental groups which gave individuals access to the preference ratings of the other participants.
Basically, in both control and experimental groups, the highest rated and lowest rated songs were similar. Great songs are great songs and have mutual appeal. Terrible songs are universally disliked. When it came to “average” songs, however, there were significant differences between the control and experimental groups based on whether the participants knew how other people rated them.
With the average songs, when participants knew what other people thought about the song they tended towards agreement. In the group where subjects could see other people’s ratings, when an average song started to receive positive hits, it would show a higher likelihood of continuing to receive positive hits.
The same trend in directionality occurred in a negative direction for other songs. In the control group where participants could not see other subjects’ ratings, the average songs received continuously random ratings, never trending towards a positive or negative direction.
It’s as if once subjects knew the ball got rolling in a certain direction, they were more inclined to give it a push to keep it rolling in that direction.
Friends Influence Mood
In addition to influencing preferences, friends can have a significant impact on our moods. Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler discovered the association in a study on social connections between number of interactions with friends and elevations in mood.
Christakis and Fowler examined data from the Framingham heart study in order to determine the effects of social connections and friendships on issues like obesity, smoking, and mood. The researchers found that people who reported higher numbers of interactions with friends also reported higher levels of happiness. The more interactions a person has, the happier they tend to be.
The researchers found that people who reported higher numbers of interactions with friends also reported higher levels of happiness. The more interactions a person has, the happier they tend to be.
To some extent this makes sense but it does beg the question, won’t unhappy encounters cancel out happy encounters? Christakis and Fowler found that happy encounters have a greater impact on individuals than unhappy encounters.
Happy encounters, based on their statistics, have a two percent greater impact than unhappy encounters. If a person has an equal number of exchanges on a daily basis with people who are happy and unhappy, they will still see elevations in reported mood.
With a focus on the importance of happiness, psychologist Martin Seligman in cooperation with Alisha Niehaus, Executive editor of Girl Scouts Program Resources has incorporated the influence of friends on mood into the development of a “Science of Happiness” badge for middle school girls.
The focus of the badge is to help girls create strategies that can buffer negative emotional states such as depression.
Activities for the badge emphasize personal awareness of mood states. Girls are required to monitor the wrong levels of happiness and engage in activities to promote elevating their mood. One of the qualifications for this badge is to demonstrate how to “get happy through others”.
This portion of the badge has the girls examining their personal influence on other people and their environment. The goal is to impact others in a positive direction and gives girl scouts the sense that happiness is not only a responsibility that they take on for their own well-being, but also for the betterment of those around them.
Friends Influence Behavior
Ask any parent of an adolescent and they’ll tell you that friends can influence a teen’s behavior. Much of the research done on adolescent peer groups relates to risk taking behavior. Research has shown that there is a heavy influence of peers on increasing risk taking behavior in teens.
Behaviors such as smoking, drinking, taking drugs, and promiscuity have consistently been linked to peer pressure.
In a recent study, James Jaccard, Hart Blanton and Tonya Dodge examined the relationship between risk taking behavior and close friends. They suggest that although peer influence and risk taking behavior is associated, findings were unable to substantiate the magnitude of its importance as indicated in prior research.
These researchers explain that with respect to value loaded risk behaviors such as alcohol consumption and promiscuity, adolescent friends have less of an impact than historically thought. Jaccard, Blanton and Dodge examine data regarding adolescent risk behaviors while controlling for variables other studies failed to examine. Specifically, these researchers control for “selection effects” and “parallel events”.
Selection effects are the values that are considered when initially choosing friends. If a person has a particular interest, they will gravitate towards others with similar interest.
If a person enjoys drinking in bars, they will naturally strike up friendships with other people who frequent their favorite watering hole. If a person loves and values books, they may choose their friends from a common interest book club.
Parallel events are described by Jaccard, Blanton and Dodge as, “concomitent changes in behavior over time between peers and the targeted individual”. This means that people develop certain interests at the same times in their lives.
The researchers site the example of developmental changes in adolescence saying that while selection effects may create an initial bond between peers, if those peers develop at a similar pace, they can be expected to engage in behavioral changes at roughly the same pace.
Simply put, kids growing up do similar things. So, for example, two teens that begin a friendship as prepubescents and experience roughly the same hormonal changes may begin engaging in sexual encounters at roughly the same time.
This does not necessarily mean that they are influencing each other in terms of risk taking, but may simply be experiencing parallel events based on similar developmental paths.
Jaccard, Blanton and Dodge discovered that when selection effects and parallel events are controlled for, the influence of peers on binge drinking and promiscuity are significantly less than previous reports indicate. They found that these behaviors were reliably influenced by friends, but not as strongly influenced as predicted.
While much of the research done on peer influence examines risk taking behavior, there is also evidence that friends serve a positive influence as well. Dr. James Shah discovered that subliminal cues relating to close friends and family can promote goal oriented behavior.
In a series of five studies using more than 300 undergraduate students, Shah tested the effects of subliminal cues on goal oriented tasks called “verbal fluency”, “analytical reasoning” and “functional creativity”. Researchers flashed the names of significant persons while the subject was engaged in one of the tasks. Persistence on the task was then measured.
Shah reports that on tasks measuring skills that were perceived as important to friends, subjects show increased effort and persistence when they received subliminal cues pertaining to those friends. If the subject believed that the skill would not be valued by the friend, however, goal persistence dropped.
In fact, if a subject indicated that verbal fluency would be highly valued by a friend and that friend was subliminally cued during a functional creativity task, persistence dropped. It was as if the reminder of that friend’s values created interference with the current desire to perform.
This study suggests that the influence of friends can have an effect at even an unconscious level!
Friends Change What we Buy
Consumer psychologists have long studied the effects of friends on consumer behavior. Evidence shows that the importance of reference groups in buying behavior can have a huge impact on an individual’s choices. Reference groups can be divided into several different categories. Associative reference groups include friends and guide buying behavior in an affiliative manner.
These are the group identities that we want to belong to. People turn to associative reference groups in order to decide what is OK to purchase. In contrast, dissociative reference groups provide information on what to avoid.
If we don’t want to seem connected to the gang, we avoid wearing their colors.
Retail consultant and environmental psychologist Paco Underhill, describes adolescent buying behavior as being significantly influenced by friends. He states that teens undergo a “reconnaissance mission” with peers in order to determine which products are acceptable before purchasing.
This influence of peers is not restricted to teens, however. Purchasing behaviors are greatly influenced by our primary reference group, friends and associates that any person aspires to identify with.
Dr. Lars Perner, a professor of Clinical Marketing, describes two more reference groups that impact our buying behavior: informative reference and normative reference groups. Informative reference groups create expectations on what sorts of goods are appropriate for specific situations.
Dr. Perner explains that purchasing clothes that fit in with employment dress codes and styles are an example of buying based on informative reference groups. Coworkers will offer reference and feedback for appropriate attire in the workplace.
Normative reference groups are more closely in line with associative reference groups. Normative groups give us the information on what to buy based on identification processes. If we want to be considered “preppy” or “edgy”, we turn to normative groups, or the groups that establish the standards, for appropriate gear.
Not all Friends are Created Equal
One important consideration as we examine the influence of friends is that influence is not uniform and consistent across ages or groups. Psychologists Laurence Steinberg and Kathryn Monahan describe the changing influence of friends between the ages of 10 and 30.
The researchers found that while research shows susceptibility to peer pressure increases between the ages of 10 and 14, resistance to peer influence undergoes a linear change between the ages of 14 and 18.
Stienberg and Monahan suggest, “Middle adolescence is an especially significant period for the development of the capacity to stand up for what one believes and resist the pressures of one’s peers to do otherwise.” Once developed, the ability to resist these pressures stays consistent until at least age 30.
This study gives an age “critical zone” for parents to be aware of. The years between the ages of 10 and 14 allow for the highest level of peer influence before common sense and independence have a chance to kick in.
In a study conducted by Brett Laursen, Christopher Hafen, Margaret Kerr, and Hakin Statten, the differential influence of peer importance is examined. These researchers found that in friendship pairings, the more “liked” peer had a higher influence on the behavior of the less popular or liked friend then vice versa.
This is logical. It makes sense that in a dyad, or relationship between two people, one of members of the pair takes on more of a leadership position. It makes sense that the person who already receives more positive regard will be less like to succumb to the influence of others than the person who has less positive regard.
Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler also found that within communities and social networks there are pivotal people who become central to influencing the behaviors of other individuals and even groups. In the computerized model which shows the trending of behaviors and moods throughout the Framingham community, pockets of influence are visible around these pivotal people.
Over the course of the 60 years since the study began, the pockets of people around these key friends show relatively consistent patterns of influence in life style shifts including health behaviors and mood. The key friends can change the life style dynamic of those around them influencing even eating behaviors and weight gain or loss.
These people seem to be the initial point of “contagion” in the social contagion theory.
So, if examined, the question of whether friends change us can only be answered in one way: yes. Evidence from many different areas of psychology and sociology show that we are not the autonomous, independent people that we think we are. Much of our lives are driven by the quality and quantity of our friends.
Friends change our cultural preferences like our taste in music. They change our mood. Friends change our behavior in both negative (risk taking) and positive (goal oriented) behaviors. Friends may even be the determining factor in what we buy. Ultimately, what does this mean?
It means chose wisely, my friend, or you may become sad and fat, wearing ugly clothes and listening to terrible music!
Image source: McGraths
About Andrianes Pinantoan
Andrianes Pinantoan is a long time blogger and an avid student of the brain. He's fascinated with how the mind works and its application in everyday life. When not working, he can be found behind a lens.