Young people unaware that peers affect their educational views


Young people are affected by their peers when it comes to their own preferences for education. This could explain why it is difficult to motivate young people to choose a vocational school despite a number of initiatives. New research results from TrygFonden's Centre for Child Research at Aarhus BSS show that it is difficult to reduce the peer effect because young people are unaware that they are in fact influenced by their peers, and because they are influenced by their peers’ presumed opinions simply if the peers are mentioned.

14.08.2019 | LONE AMDI BOISEN

PHOTO: Colourbox

Anyone with a teenager in the house knows that peers are very important with regards to what the teenager finds cool or uncool. And it will hardly come as a surprise to parents of teenagers that peers also affect young people’s educational preferences. However, few parents are probably aware that the level of influence exerted by peers is not consistent over time. It actually depends on whether the young people have their peers in mind when developing attitudes toward different types of upper secondary education, or whether the teenage brain is occupied with completely different things in that moment. However, this mechanism also means that the mere mention of peers will make the presumed preferences of the peers pop up in the teenage brain. This can make teenagers irrationally change their educational preferences in order to adapt them to the presumed preferences of their peers. 

This is one of the main conclusions drawn in a research article published in the journal Behavioral Public Policy by Morten Hjortskov, assistant professor at the Department of Political Science and fellow at TrygFonden's Centre for Child Research at Aarhus BSS, and Simon Calmar Andersen, professor and centre director at TrygFonden's Centre for Child Research.

Priming study

The conclusion is based on a so-called priming study conducted among 645 eighth and ninth grade students in Aarhus. Priming means to influence the factors that people have fresh in their memory and will thus include in their assessments when making decisions. In the study, the young people were split into two groups by drawing lots, and one group was primed with their peers’ preferences for vocational schools and college-preparing upper secondary schools. Students in this group were first asked to assess their peer’s attitudes towards the two types of schools before they were asked about their own preferences. In contrast, the young people in the control group were asked the questions in reverse order and were asked about their own preferences before having to assess the preferences of their peers. Since the students had been distributed by drawing lots, the two groups were on average similar in their educational preferences. The only systematic difference between the two groups was thus whether or not they had been primed with their peers’ preferences. The results show that young people who had been primed with their peers’ preferences have a 35 per cent more positive or negative attitude towards vocational schools than students in the control group, depending on what they believe their peers think.

Peer effect is well-documented

The researchers are the first to demonstrate that peer influence depends on whether the young people have their peers’ presumed preferences in the back of their minds when they form attitudes towards different types of youth education programmes. They are also the first to demonstrate that simply making students think about their peers’ educational preferences is enough to make their presumed preferences rub off on the students’ own preferences.

However, the rub-off effect did not come as a surprise for the two researchers. The study is part of the “Welfare Project” from TrygFonden's Centre for Child Research, which among other things aims to explain why young people select or deselect vocational schools. In the project, peer influence is expected to be a key part of the reason for why recent efforts to get more young people to choose a vocational education have had only a limited effect, Hjortskov explains:

“Both Danish and international research suggest that peers are very important for young people’s educational choices. Our result pulls in the same direction, even though we cannot know whether the rub-off effect on the students’ preferences is enough to make them change their choice of education, or whether the effect lasts right up until they have to make their final decision.”

"Typically, you would use teaching or awareness campaigns to make the students aware that this peer effect exists. [...] However, these tools are inadequate in this case because the young people don’t actually believe that they are influenced by their peers"

Morten Hjortskov - assistant professor, Department of Political Science, fellow TrygFonden's Centre for Child Research, Aarhus BSS

Young people do not find peers important

With this result in mind, the researchers were surprised to find that the same young people in two other studies attach almost no significance to their peers when it comes to their educational choices. 

Thus, peers are at the bottom of the list when young people are asked to assess the importance of different factors and people on their choice of education. This also applies when researchers used a more indirect method. By looking at young people’s choices between a number of fictitious youth education programmes, the researchers were able to calculate the significance of peers relative to other factors such as lifetime earnings and contentment.

This made the researchers reflect on whether the young people were deliberately being dishonest or whether there were other mechanisms at play, says Hjortskov:

“First, we considered if the result was due to the fact that young people don’t want to admit that they base their educational choices on their peers because it’s not cool to be influenced by others. For that reason, we conducted an experiment among young people who had enrolled in a vocational school designed to reveal whether or not they were telling the truth.” 

The experiment was conducted by simply giving the young people a list with a number of actions and asking them to indicate how many of these actions they had performed lately. The specific actions were chosen because they were uncontroversial and common among young people, for example participating in a boring party or watching a romantic film. The trick was to give half of the young people (decided by drawing lots) an extra action on the list, namely “Chose an education based on what my friends chose”. The assumption was that participants would answer truthfully because they did not have to reveal which specific actions they had performed, but simply state the total number. However, the results show that there is no difference between how many actions the young people in the two groups indicate that they have performed recently. In other words, the young people are not lying about their peers’ influence - they simply do not attach any significance to them with regards to their choice of education.

Peer influence is unconscious

On this basis, the researchers now believe that young people are simply unaware that they are influenced by their peers when it comes to choosing an education. There are two good reasons for this, says Hjortskov.

One reason is neural and concerns the imbalance in the teenage brain due caused by the brain’s socio-emotional system developing faster than the cognitive system. This means that teenagers are more sensitive, willing to take risks and reward-seeking than children and adults. Thus it is plausible that they are influenced by their peers’ attitudes without necessarily acknowledging this influence.

The other reason is that as human beings we are not cognitively able to pay equal attention to everything in our surroundings. Therefore, only a part of our thinking takes place in the so-called system 2, where we reflect on things and rationally weigh pros and cons when making choices such as what to study. The vast majority of our thinking takes place in the unconscious system 1. Here we quickly and efficiently convert input from our surroundings into actions and decisions based on intuition and associations.

“The dual process model of thinking is well-documented and coheres with our results if we assume that the impact from peers operates through the unconscious system 1. This explains why young people are susceptible to being primed with the preferences of their peers, while at the same time maintaining that the peers have virtually no significance when they reflectively and rationally explain their choice of education,” Hjortskov explains.

Difficult to avoid the peer effect

He believes that this mechanism makes it difficult to come up with initiatives to reduce the peer effect and ensure that young people’s upper secondary educational choices are based on their own wishes and beliefs rather than on the presumed educational preferences of their peers:   

 “Typically, you would use teaching or awareness campaigns to make the students aware that this peer effect exists and that they shouldn’t succumb to peer pressure or their own notions about what their peers think is cool. However, these tools are inadequate in this case because the young people don’t actually believe that they are influenced by their peers. In fact, these campaigns could have the opposite effect and push the young people in the direction of their peers’ presumed preferences, since the priming experiment showed that simply making them think of their peers’ presumed opinions will have that effect.”

According to Hjortskov, another way of reducing the peer effect would be to use the social norms approach. By using this approach, you would try correct the young people’s incorrect presumptions about what their classmates think about different youth education programmes. This is done in order to prevent young people from deselecting a particular type of education because they fear being looked down upon by their peers. However, the approach is only effective if the young people actually have an incorrect presumption of their peers’ opinions. And as the vast majority of young people continue to choose college-preparing upper secondary schools, this is not a given, Hjortskov explains. 

Even though the peer effect is hard to reduce, it does not mean that campaigns, educational guidance and relevant initiatives to promote the awareness of vocational schools and practical subjects in primary and lower secondary schools will necessarily continue to be futile, Hjortskov emphasises:

“At the moment, a number of initiatives have been launched in the attempt to make more young people choose a vocational school, and these might easily have the desired positive effect. This depends entirely on how important the peers are for young people relative to the factors emphasised in these campaigns and initiatives, and this is very difficult to measure. It also depends on whether the various initiatives make the young people change their perception of what their peers think about the vocational programmes.”

Facts about the study

  • The results in the article are based on four studies of factors that affect young people’s choice of education.
  • Studies 1-3 were carried out among 645 eighth and ninth grade students in Aarhus, and study 3 was repeated among 154 eighth and ninth grade students from the municipality of Vejen. Study 4 was carried out among 343 students from Aarhus Tech and SOSU East Jutland.
  • Study 1 was based on priming. The students were divided into two groups by drawing lots. One groups was primed with their peers’ preferences for vocational and college-preparing upper secondary schools. The priming was done by changing the order of questions, so that the young people were asked to assess what their peers think about the two types of youth education programmes before being asked about their own opinion.
  • Study 2 was a survey where the students had to indicate how important different people and factors are for their choice of education on a scale from 1 to 100.
  • Study 3 was a conjoint survey. Here, the young people were presented with pairs of descriptions of fictitious youth education programmes and had to choose which they prefer. The programmes were described via six variables that vary randomly in size, for example lifetime earnings in millions of DKK and the proportion of friends that have chosen the programme. Based on the participants’ choices, the researchers were able to calculate the relative significance of the factors.
  • Study 4 was based on a list experiment where the young people were given a list of actions and had to indicate how many of these they had performed recently. This design allowed participants to answer truthfully without the fear of social denunciation, since they only have to state the number of actions and not which specific actions they have performed. One group was selected randomly to get an additional statement namely “Chose education based on what my friends chose”. If the people in the treatment group state a higher number of actions on average, this indicates that other young people are hiding the truth because it is socially unacceptable.
  • The studies are funded by TrygFonden and the Danish Ministry of Education. 
  • Read the article (pay wall may occur).