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Peer pressure — for students and adults — can be positive

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Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Amaris Gonzalez (right center) spends her lunch break studdying in the Sewickley Academy Library with friends Meredith Sproull (from left), Megan Kyne, and Maeghan Parda Thursday, February 28, 2013.
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Amaris Gonzalez spends her lunch break studdying in the Sewickley Academy Library with friends Meredith Sproull (left) and Megan Kyne Thursday, February 28, 2013. Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
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(from left) Norwin High School Senior, Macy Divens, 17, and Sophomore Lauren Slivka, 15, train for their upcoming track & field season at the Norwin High School Field House on Friday, March 1, 2013. Brian F. Henry | Tribune-Review
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Brian F. Henry | Tribune-Review
(from left) Norwin High School Senior, Macy Divens, 17, and Sophomore Lauren Slivka, 15, train for their upcoming track & field season at the Norwin High School Field House on Friday, March 1, 2013.
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Valley News Dispatch
Victoria Scharp and Mark Cooper of Plum work out and exercise together in one of the weight training areas at the Allegheny Valley YMCA in Natrona Heights on Friday March 1, 2013. Bill Shirley | For The Valley News Dispatch
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Valley News Dispatch
Mark Cooper and Victoria Scharp of Plum work out and exercise together at the Allegheny Valley YMCA in Natrona Heights on Friday March 1, 2013. Bill Shirley | For The Valley News Dispatch
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Valley News Dispatch
Victoria Scharp and Mark Cooper of Plum work out and exercise together Friday, March 1, 2013, at the Allegheny Valley YMCA in Natrona Heights.

Amaris Gonzalez knew many kids in her public schools who didn’t prioritize academics, but when she arrived at Sewickley Academy for her freshman year, ambition surrounded her. Senior classmates were headed to universities like Harvard and Johns Hopkins. Being smart is being cool there.

“At first, it was a little overwhelming to see everyone … getting accepted into the top schools in America,” says Amaris, 15, a ninth-grader at the Sewickley school. But “it really gave me a lot of enthusiasm.”

Now, because of her classmates, Amaris, a resident of Center, Beaver County, feels especially motivated to succeed academically.

Christopher Gonzalez, Amaris’ dad, agrees. “That kind of pressure is exciting,” says Gonzalez, 48. “I like to think of it as good competition.”

The phrase “peer pressure” may evoke images of kids tempting each other with alcohol and cigarettes, and saying “C’mon, everybody’s doing it!” Yet, peers can apply positive pressure, such as a destire to get good grades in school, and adults can influence each other in powerful and good ways, too, experts say. A recent study of 158 high-school students in New York seems to confirm the obvious, but puts hard numbers and research behind it.

The 2011-12 study, published in February in the scientific journal PLOS ONE, was led by Hiroki Sayama, associate professor of bioengineering and system science at Binghamton University in New York. He asked students, six of whom were study co-authors, to categorize their classmates into acquaintances, friends and best friends. The study shows the correlation between similarity in grades and level of friendship.

Best friends, as expected, showed the most similarity in grades. But the study showed the potential for influence, both good and bad, with a student’s broader social network. If students’ class rankings were higher than those of their social network, their grades tended to fall during the year. Conversely, students whose social groups outranked them in grades tended to improve their marks over the year.

“Our finding is not quite birds of a feather flock together,” Sayama says. The study, rather, expanded on the idea: Birds of different feathers can start to look alike.

If you are surrounded by friends who are higher achievers than you, “you will be pulled up,” he says. “Conversely, if you are surrounded by low achievers, they can pull you down.

“There’s some sort of … mutual influence,” Sayama says. “Eventually, you will become more like your peers.”

What the statistical study doesn’t address is the reasons why, but people can guess that we all, including adults, are susceptible to peer pressure, both negative and positive.

“It’s a reaffirmation of what people already knew empirically,” he says.

According to author Tina Rosenberg — whose book, “Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World,” came out last year — adults might be just as susceptible to peer pressure as kids. For example, if you have friends with poor eating and exercise habits, you are more likely to be overweight. If your friends have a negative attitude, you are likely to catch it, says Rosenberg, whose 1996 book, “The Haunted Land: Facing Europe’s Ghosts After Communism,” won the Pulitzer Prize.

“We are just as vulnerable,” she says. “As adults, we find the peer group we’re much more comfortable with. Once we find that peer group, we stick with it.

“People tend to think of peer pressure as purely a negative force, but it’s just as strong in a positive direction,” she says.

Victoria Scharp and her husband, Mark Cooper, of Plum, have found positive pressure to be fit because of fellow exercisers at classes at the Allegheny Valley YMCA in Natrona Heights. Scharp and her workout friends challenge each other to get in better shape.

“My own personal mission: I try to have a workout buddy that I live with and a workout buddy that I don’t,” says Scharp, 34. She and her husband also inspire each other. “As long as someone stays motivated, we can bring the other one along with us,” she says.

Cooper, 40, says he and his wife work harder at fitness because “it’s inspiring and motivating to see other folks.”

Rosenberg’s “Join the Club” book tells six stories of kids and adults, and how positive peer pressure impacted their lives. In one example, a group of Florida teens created an anti-smoking “Truth” campaign, warning their peers about how tobacco companies are manipulating them.

“This is an example of turning kids’ need for approval … into a more healthy direction,” she says. “What you can do is offer them a new peer group.”

As for students, Maura Paczan, district psychologist for the Pine-Richland School District, says that a good grade-point average can be infectious.

“If one of your friends is performing well — they have good academic skills, they know how to study appropriately, they know how to organize themselves — I think that is contagious,” Paczan says. “It’s good to be around people who have high goals, because it can help you set high goals yourself.”

Macy Divens, 17, a senior at Norwin High School, an honors student and captain of the field hockey team and member of the track team, says her friends — fellow honors students and athletes — motivate her to work hard and achieve.

“It’s really nice. You feel like you have support, and you have something to strive for.”

Kellie B. Gormly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at [email protected] or 412-320-7824.

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