The Power of Influence: How Friends Manipulate Our Brain

Article by Lara Santos 


Science has proved that, for most students, friends are an essential part of their psychological development and for their mental well-being. Doesn’t having someone outside of your family that you can trust, that you can joke around with, but also have deep and meaningful conversations with, give you some relief? Yet, this important social aspect of our teen years can also be analyzed from other angles.  

Peer pressure is a struggle for a large part of students. Teenagers, especially, tend to seek attention and approval from their peers, and sometimes, this blinds them from processing the things they do to get to their desired social status. Suzanne Higgs, a scientist, says: “If you are with a new social group, you are more likely to imitate behaviors.”  

Is it just the fact we want to be accepted, or is it that our brain captures the attitudes and behaviors of the people around us, and slowly changes our way of being? 

Most of us have witnessed peer pressure influence someone around us, and we see them completely change into a person more fitting to their closest friends. We see this, but we always assume that we wouldn’t do the same, and that we aren’t as easily influenced. This mindset, at times, causes us to ignore the signs of our change into negative behavioral patterns, and we then find ourselves in a position where we realize that we are changing, but believe that we have no other choice, if we want to continue hanging out with these friends.  

For this, I only have one suggestion: if you are ever hesitating before doing something, think: “Would I do this if I was alone, or with other people who wouldn’t do this?”. 

Scientists have found in various studies that the brains of friends respond in similar ways as they watch a series of the same short videos. They have the same ebbs and flows of attention, and distraction at the same moments. Since the more we are with someone, the more we learn about them and automatically connect with them in various ways, our brain memorizes the reactions and actions of this person, to then apply it to our own behaviour. The influence our friends have on us is much deeper and more complex than merely us wanting to be accepted. A bio sociologist at Yale University says: “It suggests that friends resemble each other not just superficially, but in the very structures of their brains.” 

There is a famous study about drugs and friendships, where 123 teenagers were given surveys over a two-year period. These were used to measure the drug use of these adolescents and that of their friends, their relationship with their parents, their self-esteem, and attitudes toward social interdependence. The results showed that a friend’s use of drugs is the biggest determinant for one’s use, and that, as expected due to the pressure, they tend to start acting in negative ways, as to be like others, affecting their entire life and behaviour.  

However, the influence of friends is not always negative. Multiple researchers found that the social support of our friends has a very positive influence on our academic performance. 

Just the presence of peers in school motivates a lot of students, because the reward center of the brain is more active with them around. There was one study of college freshmen, which found that “having friends with higher propensities to study is predictive of receiving higher freshman grades.” Hanging out with a studious person causes you to study more, because seeing someone you’re close to succeed provokes a feeling of envy, and motivates you to do well in school as well. 

Peer pressure can have a significant impact on our brain and behavior, consciously and unconsciously. Our desire to fit in with our peers can overrule our true beliefs and values, leading us to engage in behaviours that we might have never considered before.  

There are multiple mechanisms of peer pressure, but you can resist its influence and make good decisions for yourself. There is always more to know about yourself, and it’s important to develop your own opinions on various topics, without anyone pressuring you to change your mind.  

The most obvious conclusion would be to stay true to yourself, and to be a strong, confident, independent person, who doesn’t need other people to dictate who you truly are, or how you should act.