Research on adolescent development suggests that peer influence may play a key role in explaining adolescents’ willingness to drink, an important predictor of drinking initiation. However, experiments that thoroughly examine these peer influence effects are scarce. This study experimentally examined whether adolescents adapted their willingness to drink when confronted with the pro-alcohol and anti-alcohol norms of peers in a chat room session and whether these effects were moderated by the social status of peers.
We collected survey data on drinking behavior, social status, and willingness to drink among five hundred thirty-two 14- to 15-year-olds. Of this sample, 74 boys participated in a simulated Internet chat room session in which participants were confronted with preprogrammed pro-alcohol or anti-alcohol norms of “grade-mates” which were in fact preprogrammed e-confederates. Accordingly, we tested whether participants adapted their willingness to drink to the norms of these grade-mates. To test whether adaptations in participants’ willingness to drink would depend on grade-mates’ social status, we manipulated their level of popularity.
The results indicated that adolescents adapted their willingness to drink substantially to the pro-alcohol (i.e., more willing to drink) as well as anti-alcohol (i.e., less willing to drink) norms of these peers. Adolescents were more influenced by high-status than low-status peers. Interestingly, the anti-alcohol norms of the popular peers seemed most influential in that adolescents were less willing to drink when they were confronted with the anti-alcohol norms of popular peers. Additionally, the adolescents internalized these anti-alcohol norms.
This study gives more insight into peer influence processes that encourage or discourage alcohol use. These results could be fundamental for the development of prevention and intervention programs to reduce alcohol use among the adolescents.