Copy-cat? Youth with few friends conform to stay in a friend's 'good graces'

February 12, 2023

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Copy-cat? Youth with few friends conform to stay in a friend's 'good graces'

Peer influence is pervasive during childhood and adolescence. Conformity can foster similarity, which makes it easier to get along and reduces the risk that disagreements over dissimilarities will rupture a friendship. Seen in this light, conformity is an effective strategy for appeasing friends and maintaining the potentially hard to replace benefits the friendship provides.

But what gives one friend influence over another? Considerable attention has focused on who influences whom; much less is known about why one partner is prone to be influenced by the other.

US researchers tested the hypothesis that within a friend dyad, having fewer friends than one’s partner increases susceptibility to influence, because it reduces dissimilarity and promotes compatibility. The study involved a diverse community sample of public middle school sixth graders in reciprocated friendships in Southern California, who were followed across a single academic year.

Teachers reported on students’ prosocial behavior and academic engagement. Students reported on their own social anxiety and somatic symptoms (physical distress cues such as stomach aches) during the fall and spring of sixth grade.

The results, published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, indicated that those with fewer friends were influenced by individuals with more friends. In each case, the partner with fewer friends became more similar to the partner with more friends. Academic engagement was the only domain where partners with fewer friends also influenced partners with more friends.

What the researchers say: “Of particular importance is that susceptibility depended not on having few friends, but instead on having fewer friends than one’s partner. Children with the greatest number of friends were not the most influential; nor were children with the fewest friends the most susceptible to influence,” the lead author explained. “Imagine two students in the same classroom who have the same number of friends. Both are not equally susceptible to influence. Perhaps the clearest evidence on this point is that youth with only one other friend were susceptible to influence from partners who had relatively more friends, but not from partners who had relatively fewer friends.”

He notes that the total number of friends that a child has is not the issue. What matters is whether or not the child has fewer friends than the partner.

“Compared to the partner with relatively more friends, the partner with fewer friends has more to fear from the loss of the relationship and is therefore more invested in its success. Children with more to lose from friendship dissolution are aware that conformity helps to preserve existing friendships, by strengthening similarities that serve as a foundation for shared enjoyment and by reducing potential sources of conflict that may disrupt exchanges,” he concluded. “They also know that their partner, the one with more friends, will not have as much difficulty finding someone else to hang around with and therefore does not have an incentive to be accommodating. Someone has to bend and the partner with fewer friends assume that they are that someone.”

The authors say that for those with few alternatives, conformity may be an important strategy to strengthen friendship ties, promoting compatibility by reducing dissimilarity.

“There may be costs associated with conformity, but many youth are willing to bear them, apparently to stay in the good graces of a friend.”

So, what? This research adds to and confirms what multiple studies have concluded over the last few years: Humans will accept and propagate the ideas and behavioral modes of those that they believe will be able to offer them relational support.

A network of support to a human is the fundamental criteria for having a sense of safety. That need is embedded in our DNA. It’s the reason that people join cults, or political groups even when they don’t believe in the group’s doctrines—though they will espouse them with what seems like fanatical enthusiasm.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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