Staying cool: Students with fewer friends ‘copy’ their peers to avoid more unpopularity

BOCA RATON, Fla. — In the film “Mean Girls,” Regina George rules the school as the leader of the Plastics. Her best friends follow her every move and agree with everything she says — even if it means belittling themselves. The movie might seem like an exaggeration of high school social life, but researchers in Florida say that there is some truth in this depiction and the lengths people go to make and keep their friends.

Researchers from Florida Atlantic University say adolescents with only a few friends are more likely to imitate their peers’ behavior and go along with what they want to do. Making yourself into a carbon copy of your friend seems to help with reducing the risk of getting into arguments and potentially losing the friendship.

Conformity is a dynamic that sees one person having much more influence over another. By mimicking the other person, you’re more likely to get along because of the common similarities. However, you leave yourself open to peer pressure. When it comes to being the influencer or the one under the influence, the most important factor is whether you have fewer friends than your companion.

Children with the greatest number of friends were not the most influential; nor were children with the fewest friends the most susceptible to influence,” says Brett Laursen, PhD, a professor of psychology at FAU, in a university release. “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.”

Children who mimic their friends feel they have more to lose

In the current study, the researchers tested the hypothesis that, between two friends, having less friends than your pal makes you more prone to imitate their behavior. They observed a class of sixth graders at a Southern California public middle school for a full school year.

The teachers gave regular updates on students’ prosocial behavior and how they were doing in class. Students reported on their own social anxiety and any physical symptoms, like stomach aches that may have come from emotional distress. Students who had fewer friends than their partner were most susceptible to peer pressure. In every scenario, the authors observed they were also the one who acted the most like their companion.

The findings suggest it’s not the total number of friends a child has but whether the child has fewer friends than their partner. This is likely because the one with fewer friends has more to lose if the friendship collapses. They are the ones who would have to put more effort into keeping and maintaining the relationship.

“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,” says Laursen. “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.”

While conformity comes at a cost, such as doing activities you may not enjoy, the authors suggest it might actually be one of the best strategies to strengthen the ties of friendship.

The study is published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence.

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About the Author

Jocelyn Solis-Moreira

Jocelyn is a New York-based science journalist whose work has appeared in Discover Magazine, Health, and Live Science, among other publications. She holds a Master’s of Science in Psychology with a concentration in behavioral neuroscience and a Bachelor’s of Science in integrative neuroscience from Binghamton University. Jocelyn has reported on several medical and science topics ranging from coronavirus news to the latest findings in women’s health.

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