Eating Disorders in Adolescents
An experimental examination of peers' influence on adolescent girls' intent to engage in maladaptive weight-related behaviors
This research is based on the doctoral dissertation of Diana Rancourt under the direction of Mitchell J. Prinstein while at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It was supported in part by grants from the National Institute of Mental Health awarded to the first (5 F31 MH085417-02) and third and fourth (1 R01-HD055342) authors.
Social psychological theories provide bases for understanding how social comparison processes may impact peer influence. This study examined two peer characteristics that may impact peer influence on adolescent girls' weight-related behavior intentions: body size and popularity.
A school-based sample of 66 9th grade girls (12–15 years old) completed an experimental paradigm in which they believed they were interacting with other students (i.e., “e-confederates”). The body size and popularity of the e-confederates were experimentally manipulated. Participants were randomly assigned to one of the three experimental conditions in which they were exposed to identical maladaptive weight-related behavior norms communicated by ostensible female peers who were either: (1) Thin and Popular; (2) Thin and Average Popularity; or (3) Heavy and Average Popularity. Participants' intent to engage in weight-related behaviors was measured pre-experiment and during public and private segments of the experiment.
A significant effect of condition on public conformity was observed. Participants exposed to peers' maladaptive weight-related behavior norms in the Heavy and Average condition reported significantly less intent to engage in weight-related behaviors than participants in either of the thin-peer conditions (F(2) = 3.93, p = .025). Peer influence on private acceptance of weight-related behavior intentions was similar across conditions (F(2) = .47, p = .63).
Body size comparison may be the most salient component of peer influence processes on weight-related behaviors. Peer influence on weight-related behavior intention also appears to impact private beliefs. Considering peer norms in preventive interventions combined with dissonance-based approaches may be useful. © 2014 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. (Int J Eat Disord 2014; 47:437–447)