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The positive role of social peer pressure

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The positive role of social peer pressure

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There’s a Facebook craze here in the UK at the moment that is grabbing headlines for all the wrong reasons.  The craze, called Neknomination, sees youngsters challenged to down a pint of something or other before then challenging a friend to do the same.  The whole thing is video’d and done via Facebook.  What started out as perhaps something relatively innocent (downing pints of beer) moved on to things not innocent at all, to the extent that a couple of youngsters have died as a result of their participation.

Those kind of things are what usually make the news when it comes to peer pressure.  The media focus almost solely on the negative aspect of it, but of course that’s not always the case.  I wrote last year about a UCLA study looking at the role of online communities in improving sexual health, and in particular cutting down the kind of behaviour that can lead to HIV.  It revealed that being part of a community can significantly increase the kind of positive behaviours we wish to see.

A couple of studies published recently have reinforced this fact.  The first, from David Shoham, an assistant professor in Pitt’s Department of Preventive Medicine and Epidemiology, looks at the role social media can play in reducing obesity.

He suggests that those with a large social network have a strong influence over their peers, so those that are both healthy and have a large social network are particularly potent.  It’s a combination of social learning theory and peer pressure.

“People tend to conform to the ideas of those that they respect, and if we take advantage of that, we can cause change,” he said.

A second study has looked at the role of our peers in getting medical vaccinations.  The study, conducted by Tamer Oraby from Guelph.  He wanted to use maths to explore why vaccination rates remain high even in countries with no mandatory programs.

They created a mathematical model in which virtual people could either choose to vaccinate their kids or not.  These individuals were programmed to constantly scan the behaviours of other actors in the model, so if they saw others doing something that benefited them, it influenced their own behaviours.

Then, the researchers added another factor: The more people chose a strategy, the greater the benefit of that strategy. This addition to the model mimicked peer pressure, in which people benefit from fitting in with their social group.

These social factors were found to keep vaccination rates high, even in environments where the risk of disease was found to be low.  Suffice to say, this can work both ways, with the UK baring witness to that after a fraudulent publication in the Lancet suggested the MMR vaccine was dangerous.  This resulted in a substantial drop in vaccinations around the world.

“In short, it’s because people underestimate the risk of the disease and overestimate the risk of the vaccination,” Oraby said.

The paper reinforces the need to take peer pressure and social networking into account when trying to deliver health messages to the community.  The top down approach often taken is shown to have some substantial weaknesses.

“The message here might be that we need to encourage people to vaccinate in our social networks,” Oraby said. “Showing the actual risks of both vaccination and nonvaccination can raise the vaccine acceptance rate.”

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