By Jean Balchin 13/04/2018

A recent study in Scientific Reports suggests that being in the presence of peers (such as friends, coworkers or acquaintances) who engage in risky behaviours may have an influence on individual choices.

In a laboratory task led by Livia Tomova and Luiz Pessoa, participants who knew of riskier behaviour taken by their peers, tended to make riskier choices themselves. However, observing safe choices by others was associated with less risky behaviour.

52 students aged 18‒25 years old were asked to take part in a laboratory-based task to measure risk taking. The students could earn money by pumping up a balloon, but the chances of the balloon exploding (along with the chances of the student receiving any money) increased with each pump.

Following the first round of the test, participants decided how much they wanted to pump the balloon up and were told the decisions the other students supposedly made. These “decisions” were actually predefined decisions calculated by the researchers. The students were then given the option to change their decision. It was discovered that individuals were more likely to display riskier behaviours if they believed their peers took high risks, and vice versa.

Tomova and Pessoa suggest that understanding how choices of others can influence risky behaviour is becoming more important, given increasing access to information about others’ lifestyles and opinions due to social media platforms such as Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter.

As the researchers argue, we are daily  confronted with decisions that can have serious consequences for health and well-being.

“For example, choosing whether or not to speed on a highway, participate in drinking games, or have sex with a stranger, all can have major impact on an individual’s life. Thus, understanding how risky decisions are made is of crucial importance.”

In adolescence, a number of risk behaviours, including smoking, excessive alcohol consumption and unprotected sexual intercourse, increase in frequency, and are associated with increased risk of poor educational attainment, future morbidity and premature mortality. In some cases, these behaviours shape adult behaviour and may be extremely costly to society and young people. Indeed, people who engage in any one risk behaviour are more likely to engage in another, and there may be shared biological and environmental factors which influence the development of these multiple behaviours.

As this study indicates, there are a variety of factors which may influence one’s risky behaviour, and so prevention and treatment interventions may impact on more than one outcome.

You can read Tomova and Pessoa’s study here.

Image: Photo by Michał Parzuchowski on Unsplash