So what if adolescents think their peers are kinkier than they actually are? Prinstein said perceptions about drug use—even misperceptions—can become reality.
"The number-one reason why adolescents engage in risky behaviors is peer influence,” he said. "Kids are influenced by their perception of what their peers are doing. But their perception is wrong!" The researchers showed that 9th graders with more exaggerated ideas of their popular peers' drug use were more likely to do drugs throughout high school. Other research by Prinstein and Cohen has showed that when you randomly assign kids in a laboratory setting to think that popular kids are deviants, they become more likely to endorse similar risky behavior.
I asked both professors if there was evidence that high schoolers would do less drugs if they knew about their peers' behavior, Is it enough to simply announce that the emperor has no clothes?
Changing misperceptions is a little more complicated than that, both authors said. "They’ve hung signs around college campuses that say how much students actually drink. But nobody believes those signs, because they think the adults who put them up are lying,” Prinstein said. "Or they’ll say, ‘That’s the average for the campus, but what’s the average for the cool kids?’"
What's more, adolescents readily gravitate to norms, and schools that publicize student drinking behavior might be accidentally endorsing drinking, Cohen said. "There is a checkered history to social norms marketing, like telling kids how much their peers actually drink on campus. What if the kids who don’t drink much at all say, ‘That’s more than I thought!’ Suddenly, they start drinking more.”
Cohen grabbed a medical metaphor to suggest a better way. In healthcare, he said, the value of "precision medicine” is to tailor treatments to individual people rather than treat a large population with one drug. The same should be done in social interventions, he said. The equivalent of “mass inoculation”—e.g.: hanging signs in school halls—could discourage some kids from risky stuff, but alert other students to the idea it’s normal to be a little bit bad. The precision-medicine approach would identify at-risk students with dangerously exaggerated impressions of drug use.
Personally, I've come away two big conclusions from reading this study and spending the last day talking to, and thinking about, its authors' comments.
1. We’re not so different … The fact that various cliques exaggerate one another's behavior suggests that high school students are more like each other than they think. Recall Prinstein's observation: "It turns that everybody had about the same number of friends." This is kind of a beautiful thought—that the jerks, jocks, jokers, and just normal kids from our high school were divided more by their grotesque misperceptions than by their actual behavioral differences. As the Breakfast Club kids write at the end of the movie, "Each one of us is a brain, and an athlete, and a basket case ... ” (or, as these results suggest, perhaps none of us is). As every villain in Hollywood history has intoned to a nemesis: “We’re not so different, you and I."