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Peer-Pressure Can Encourage Patience and Healthy Eating

Back to school: What lessons can be learned by peer-pressure?

Peer-pressure can make people do bad things. Trying recreational drugs for the first time is often linked to being around peers that use drugs. First time recreational drug users are often led down a path by frequently being around other users. This can be most pronounced in schools and social settings. But can peer-pressure also have positive results?

People often model their behavior based on who they are around. Social learning theory firmly suggests that your peer group will influence what you do, how you do it, and when you will stop [1]. Think of all the times you are with friends—are there some who you respect/admire and thus you consciously do what they do? Research has shown that people will sometimes imitate others and not be aware of it, even if the behavior you are imitating won’t help you [2], suggesting there is also an unconscious or automatic bias to follow a leader in a group setting.

This is extremely important when we think about children and their peer groups. Children will often model their behavior based on what they think is “in” and “cool” – and that often means what others are doing. Thus, being around others who can have a positive influence is important.

Many people know about the marshmallow study, but there is a new twist: New research has use built on a classic study on children and patience to shed light on how kids can be healthier eaters. As a review, the classic marshmallow study has shown that children who wait for a larger reward, as opposed to those who settle for immediate gratification, have very positive outcomes later in life. The “marshmallow test” was devised over 50 years ago, and showed that if a child is given one marshmallow but can resist the urge to immediately eat it and wait a few minutes (while the experimenter left the room), then the child would be rewarded with a second marshmallow. Children who were able to delay their gratification and wait (even a few seconds longer) for the larger reward, tended to have better life outcomes years later, suggesting that good things happen to those who (can) wait [3].

The novel recent twist on this study has shown that if children are around other children who opt to wait for the second marshmallow (a peer pressure to wait because all the other kids are doing it!), then they too will wait – showing just how powerful peer-pressure can be [4]. Of course, encouraging kids to wait longer for more sugar isn’t really a step closer to healthy eating. But based on the principles and theory outlined by these types of experiments, there may be ways to encourage children (and adults) to eat healthier. Kids early in life are influenced by what their friends are eating. One study found that when non-veggie liking preschoolers were then put around other preschools who regularly ate vegetables, these preschoolers converted and wanted to eat vegetables [5].

Peer-pressure and modeling can show that eating vegetables is not only healthy and socially-acceptable, but also cool. Based on the preschooler study that showed changes in vegetable preferences based on peer-learning, it is clear this can start early in life. Television shows can encourage this by depicting very cool kids (child actors) munching and crunching on vegetables while doing activities that most kids would want to model—and children then act like “copy cats”, wanting to eat what they see on TV [6]. Media can really influence children, but being around others who eat well can promote some healthy habits. While younger children may be influenced by what is on television, tweens and teens are more influenced by what their peers are doing and eating for lunch. In the lunch room or cafeteria, who you eat with can influence what you eat, and then what children want parents to pack for lunch. Adults who eat in groups are also influenced by the choices of others, so being around those who have healthy habits and healthy food preferences can make a difference.

Incorporating healthy eating with other fun activities (such as when socializing or watching movies) can be a great way to encourage healthy eating. Social learning blossoms at an early age, and that is why children can benefit from peer-pressure. While peer-pressure can certainly lead to many unhealthy behaviors and risky decisions in youth and adulthood, if we are aware of how peer-pressure can encourage positive behavior, there can be some simple ways to make children and parents healthier and happier.


1. Pratt, T. C., Cullen, F. T., Sellers, C. S., Thomas Winfree Jr, L., Madensen, T. D., Daigle, L. E., ... & Gau, J. M. (2010). The empirical status of social learning theory: A meta‐analysis. Justice Quarterly, 27, 765-802.

2. McGuigan, N., Makinson, J., & Whiten, A. (2011). From over‐imitation to super‐copying: Adults imitate causally irrelevant aspects of tool use with higher fidelity than young children. British Journal of Psychology, 102, 1-18.

3. Watts, T. W., Duncan, G. J., & Quan, H. (2018). Revisiting the marshmallow test: A conceptual replication investigating links between early delay of gratification and later outcomes. Psychological Science, 29, 1159-1177.

4. Doebel, S., & Munakata, Y. (2018). Group influences on engaging self-control: Children delay gratification and value it more when their in-group delays and their out-group doesn’t. Psychological Science, 29, 738-748.

5. Birch, L. L. (1980). Effects of peer models' food choices and eating behaviors on preschoolers' food preferences. Society for Research in Child Development, 51, 489-496.

6. For a good example of this, see the video “Copy Kids”