A WSJ article on teen peer pressure fascinated me because I can remember what it was like, and I was reminded that the whole deal is a two-edged sword:

New studies on peer pressure suggest that teens—who often seem to follow each other like lemmings—may do so because their brains derive more pleasure from social acceptance than adult brains, and not because teens are less capable of making rational decisions.

Hmmm… Is pleasure not rational? If it is, then how can decisions based on seeking pleasure not be considered rational?

Why did the Declaration of Independence refer to “pursuit of happiness” as a basic right if it is irrational to seek pleasure?

The researchers seem to have made a kneejerk association of things like drinking with peer pressure, but I’m not so sure about that. Sure, peer pressure can increase the likelihood of a kid trying alcohol, but it does not explain why some people like drinking more than others.

In terms of who is most resistant to peer pressure, researchers have identified some characteristics of kids who are resilient against peer influence, such as those who are more popular, have families with low dysfunction and have high communication skills. But they still don’t know why these kids are less susceptible, according to Mitchell Prinstein, a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who studies popularity and peer influence.

Though peer pressure affects all kids, risky, “bad” behaviors like drinking tend to be associated with being popular, so kids who are less popular or have lower self-esteem tend to fall prey to peer influence for these behaviors rather than, for instance, doing well in school.

In a series of studies, including one published last year in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, researchers set up an Internet chat room and led kids to believe they were interacting with three peers who were considered popular or unpopular. The kids were then asked questions like, “Imagine you’re in a party scenario and someone offers you alcohol. What would you drink?” If the other people in the room say yes, the effect is “very powerful,” says Dr. Prinstein. “We find our respondents dramatically change their response.”

When the supposed peers are popular, highly socially anxious kids indiscriminately conform—they would agree with whatever the other kids decided—but low-anxiety kids were more choosy. The kids most likely to be influenced are the least popular—not necessarily because of low self-esteem but because they want to be positively evaluated to fit in.

Also discussed is the wanting-to-be-different mindset, which can lead to a hopeless hall of mirrors:

Also, some of what appears to be resistance to peer pressure is just about wanting to be different. Some people have a higher need for uniqueness, but they’re still being influenced, says Jonah Berger, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania who studies social influence and consumer decision-making.

Kids from different social circles may wear very different clothing from people in other cliques, but resemble each other, even those outside the mainstream. For instance, a group of friends may sport Mohawk haircuts in reaction to other kids in school wearing preppy gear.

Conformity and rebellion are closely linked phenomena. This is an excellent argument for things like dress codes.  Considering that kids by definition have to be subordinated to adult authority, adults can make it a lot easier for them to not feel pressure to conform or rebel.

There is plenty of time later in life for such things.

As a 58 year old perennial rebel, I speak from experience.