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Students' Work Ethic Affected By Peer Groups, Desire To Be Popular


We have research this morning on what may stop some students from succeeding in school. To be more precise, it is what causes some students to stop themselves. Teachers get frustrated when kids don't seem to try very hard in school. This research points to a reason why that may be. NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam is with us to talk about it. Hi, Shankar.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK, so what's the research?

VEDANTAM: Well, the research is what I'd call a new look at an old idea, Steve, and that idea is peer pressure. There's new research that shows that students desperately want to fit in with their peers. And if their peers are not motivated, this can affect the academic choices that students make. I especially like the way the researchers tested this idea. Leonardo Bursztyn at UCLA and Robert Jensen at the Wharton School, they went into four low-income LA schools and offered 11th grade students access to free SAT prep courses.

INSKEEP: So this is an opportunity to get ahead in the world and maybe get into a better school?

VEDANTAM: Exactly. Now, there was a catch in the way they conducted the study - by going into these schools at random times, they sometimes caught students sitting in honors classes and sometimes they caught them sitting in non-honors classes. And Bursztyn says that when students were sitting in the honors classes, among peers who were more high-performing, they were more likely to sign up for the SAT prep course. But when they were sitting in the non-honors classes, among lower-performing peers, something else happened.

LEONARDO BURSZTYN: When they believed that the other students will find out about their choice, the sign-up goes down by 11 percentage points. So instead of 72, we see 61 percent, big drop. Many students are forgoing this opportunity just because they don't want their peers to find out.

INSKEEP: Wow, so students essentially don't want to be seen as a nerd, or in any case, they don't want to be seen as different than what their peers are doing.

VEDANTAM: That's exactly right. One of the things that the researchers tried to establish this is that they offered these courses either in public or in private in the different classes. And what they found was that students sitting with lower-performing peers were more likely to sign up for the SAT prep course when their choice was private. When the sign-up was made public, these students were declining to sign up because they thought their peers would find out. Now, what's interesting, Steve, is that peer pressure worked in exactly the opposite direction in the honors classes. Now students sitting with the high-performing peers, where the norm was to do well academically, these students were more likely to sign up for the SAT prep course when the choice was public. In both cases, students were using sign-up for the SAT prep course to signal to peers that they were adhering to the norm of the individual classrooms.

INSKEEP: Does this confirm the old wisdom of parents who would be concerned about the kind of kids you're hanging out with when you're young?

VEDANTAM: It totally would, Steve. And I mean, you can't always control the peers that your kids are with. But I think what the study is pointing to is the idea that you might want to be mindful about how you present choices to your kids, depending on which peers are around them at that point.

INSKEEP: Does this peer pressure work the same on all the kids in a classroom?

VEDANTAM: You know, that's a really interesting question, Steve, because Bursztyn and Jensen find that in fact that's not the case. These peer pressure affects are strongest among students who care a lot about being popular. Here's Bursztyn again.

BURSZTYN: We find a large - very large drop amongst students who care about popularity when they're sitting non-honors classes, OK, and a very, very small one for people those who don't care about popularity, which is again suggestive of these peer pressure affects that we're looking at.

VEDANTAM: What Bursztyn and Jensen are finding, Steve, is that when a student cares about popularity, they are massively affected by their peers. When they don't care about popularity, they're really not affected by their peers at all.

INSKEEP: And they're able to decide for themselves.

VEDANTAM: Exactly.

INSKEEP: So what should parents and teachers do with this information?

VEDANTAM: Well, I think, as you just said a second ago, Steve, teachers and parents need to be keenly aware of how much peers affect the choices that students make. Sometimes it's not the best idea to say everyone who wants to go the extra mile in class put up your hand because sometimes it's better to allow students to make those choices in private so they don't feel ostracized by their peers.

INSKEEP: Popular honors student Shankar Vedantam, thanks very much for coming by.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter) Happy to be here, Steve.

INSKEEP: He regularly joins us to talk about social science research. And you can find him on Twitter - @HiddenBrain. You can also find the program - @MorningEdition. I'm @NPRinskeep.


And I'm @nprgreene.

INSKEEP: Did you lose your first name, too?

GREENE: I did. It's old-fashioned.

INSKEEP: OK. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.