Misfit or Miss Goody Two Shoes? Adolescent misperceptions abound, Stanford researcher says

Researchers at Stanford and UNC-Chapel Hill find that teens are influenced by "caricatures" of their peers' sex lives and drug use.

High school girls talking

A new study co-authored by Stanford Graduate School of Education Professor Geoffrey Cohen shows how teens over-estimate their peers’ participation in risky behaviors. (Image credit: Steve Debenport/iStock)

It’s true: teens are misunderstood. But apparently, teens themselves have dramatic misperceptions about what their peers are doing when it comes to sex, drugs and studying, possibly prompting them to conform to social norms that don’t exist.                                                       

That’s according to new research that shows that adolescents overestimate the amount of drug and alcohol use and sexual behaviors that many of their peers are engaging in. At the same time, they underestimate the amount of time their peers spend on studying or exercise.

“When they are judging the popular crowd, the jocks, the burnouts or the brainy kids at school, the gist is that students in these crowds are misperceived,” said Geoffrey Cohen, a professor at Stanford Graduate School of Education who co-authored the psychology study along with researchers at Tilburg University, the Netherlands, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, including lead investigator Professor Mitchell Prinstein.

“They tend to misperceive what their peers are doing,” said Cohen, the James G. March Professor in Organizational Studies in Education and Business. “So they are conforming to norms based not on reality but on stereotypes.”

The study examined the perceptions and behaviors of 235 10th-grade participants at a suburban, middle-income high school.

Brains to burnouts

Following a method commonly used in adolescent research, five reputation-based groups were identified: socially oriented “populars,” athletically oriented jocks, deviant-oriented “burnouts,” academically oriented brains and students who were not strongly affiliated with any specific crowd. Jocks and populars ranked higher in likability than burnouts and brains, and were thus identified as high-status.

Students reported their engagement in various behaviors confidentially, allowing researchers to compare the actual and perceived behavior of the groups.

Comparisons between the groups, from what the individuals reported as their own behaviors to what others thought of them, clearly resulted in what the study called “gross misperceptions.”  

Even teens in the high-status groups had exaggerated perceptions of their own group peers’ risky behaviors.

In the instance of cigarette use, students in the popular crowd reported that they smoked about 1.5 cigarettes a day in the past month, while others – both and outside the group – thought they smoked three cigarettes a day.

Jocks said they didn’t smoke much at all but others estimated they smoked at least one cigarette per day.

Burnouts reported that they smoked about two to three cigarettes per day, but their peers pegged the perceived amount at a half-pack to a whole pack of cigarettes a day.

According to their schoolmates’ perceptions, jocks not only smoked more, they binged on alcohol more and had more sex than what the jocks reported as their actual behavior.

Burnouts faced similarly significant misperceptions: yes, they smoked relatively more marijuana than other groups but not nearly as much as what their peers thought they did. The burnouts were also wrongly presumed to shoplift and damage property more frequently and study less than what they reported in reality.

In fact, jocks and popular teen-agers – the two social groups seen as having the greatest potential of influencing others’ behavior – reported levels of sexual and deviant behaviors that were not significantly different from either the burnout or brainy groups, according to the study.

On the other hand, the brainy crowd studied on average only about half the amount of time that their peers thought they did.

Since teens are sensitive to the judgment of their peers and often try to emulate the “cool kids,” researchers are working to better understand the role that peers play during this impressionable period, Cohen said. This particular study shed light on the extent of adolescent misperceptions as well as its implications.

“This quest for identity can sometimes lead adolescents in the wrong direction,” Cohen said.

A second prong of the study followed a group of ninth-graders at a rural, low-income school through the 11th grade to examine the link between adolescent perceptions of high-status peers and adolescents’ own drug use.

Substance use

Researchers found that the increases in substance use that high-schoolers reported during the 2.5-year study – for instance increases in cigarette, marijuana and alcohol use – was predicted by their perceptions of what the popular students were doing.  That is, those who believed popular peers were engaging in these behaviors more in ninth grade were at higher risk, two years later in 11th grade, of engaging in the same behaviors.

 Those with higher perceptions of their popular peers’ substance use at the outset in ninth grade had steeper increases of their own drug use over time, suggesting that these misperceptions contribute to risk behavior.

The implications are troubling, according to the study, which was published in November by the American Psychological Association. “Results suggest that adolescents have a caricatured perception of their peers’ behavior (perhaps especially so for high-status peers) and are influenced by those gross misperceptions.”

The powerful effects of perceived norms were also seen in a series of other studies by Cohen, Prinstein, and their colleagues, published by the APA in September.

Using an experimental simulated chat room, the researchers found that high-schoolers were highly susceptible to the risky norms set by popular peers – even when these norms were experimentally manipulated, rather than real-life measures.

Moreover the ninth graders who thought their popular peers had high numbers of sex partners and who were highly susceptible to peer norms in this experimental chatroom were at the greatest risk of elevations in their risk behavior a year and a half later. 

“The lesson of this research,” said Cohen, “is that people may conform to norms and identities that are in their head rather than in reality – both for good and, too often, for ill.”

Media Contacts

Geoff Cohen, Stanford Graduate School of Education: glc@stanford.edu
Brooke Donald, communications manager, Stanford Graduate School of Education: (650) 721-1402, brooke.donald@stanford.edu