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Teenagers are known for their reckless and impulsive behaviours, such as taking drugs, skipping classes and not wearing crash helmets. Peer pressure is the reason most often given for this type of behaviour, but just how exactly does peer pressure influence an individual’s choices? Wouter van den Bos, a developmental psychologist at the University of Amsterdam (UvA), will be investigating how adolescents’ social networks are related to their individual choices and risky behaviour.

Teenagers jumping off a bridge (Wikimedia Commons)

Wouter van den Bos received a Vidi grant from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) for his research into adolescents’ imitative behaviour. If your friends jump off a bridge, do you jump too? Teens are asked this rhetorical question daily, but is the answer that is given really clear?

Social information and behaviour

The teenage years are a turbulent time when your world expands enormously and the potential for risky behaviour increases. Decisions about whether to do something risky or not – putting on your helmet when getting on your scooter, smoking, having safe sex – are influenced by the social information teenagers receive and internalise, meaning the information they have access to through their own networks. But teens are not just passive receptors of social information, they also play an active role in searching out this information.   

Research into social networks

Much research has already been conducted on teenage social networks, how they are formed, and how risky behaviour spreads through such a network. But these network analyses have not yet been linked with experiments at the level of the individual which would explain how this process takes place.

In order to investigate imitative behaviour in adolescents, Van den Bos will first carry out a network analysis in the schools. This way he will be able to map out at group level who is a member of whose social network and where they are located: which classmates are closer to the individual, and which are further away.

Social networks and the individual

In the next phase of the research, Van den Bos will transfer the information from the social network analysis into experiments with individual pupils to be carried out in the schools and in the lab, with the help of MRI scans. In this way, he can find out how pupils arrive at certain choices and what influence their social networks have on this decision-making.

For example, what happens in a teenager’s brain when a teen recognises a face from his/her network at the same time as being put in the position of making a decision? Which face from the network has the most influence? And do teens adjust their decision as soon as they are informed of a friend’s deviating choice? By imaging the brain processes through these experiments, this analysis will also map out the social network, highlight similarities and differences, and further investigate the decision-making mechanism.  

Teaching materials for schools

With this research, Van den Bos intends to develop models that will give us a deeper insight into the elements which play a role in choice mechanisms. He also wants to make these models accessible to schools in the form of teaching materials. These materials will allow teachers to discuss decision-making mechanisms, influence, risky behaviour and avoiding risky behaviour in their classes. Where do you get your information from? How biased is your information? Are your friends and Facebook really the best sources of information? This could help teenagers to become more aware of how their thinking is influenced.

About Vidi grants

Vidi grants (€800,000) are awarded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO). Researchers can use these grants for a five-year period to develop their own innovative line of research and establish a research group.

Project title: The Neural and Network Dynamics of Social Influence on Risky Decision-making Across Adolescence

dr. W. (Wouter) van den Bos

Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences

Programme group Developmental Psychology