The University Record, March 29, 1993

Personality type determines response to peer pressure

By Deborah Gilbert
News and Information Services

A study of more than 300 institutionalized juvenile delinquent boys found that they respond differently to peer pressure depending on their personality type.

They were in training schools that use “Positive Peer Culture” programs, which employ peer pressure—often a negative force—to generate positive group and individual behavior.

“But we found that not all boys were equally responsive to peer pressure,” say

U-M and University of Nebraska researchers.

The delinquents who were more secure, outgoing and likeable responded best to peer pressure. They also responded well to the autonomy and responsibility given them by the staff. On the other hand, insecure delinquents, beset with anxiety and depression, were more deeply affected by friendly, caring, firm teachers and staff counselors.

“Deeply insecure youngsters probably experienced a great deal of neglect and abuse as infants and in early childhood, so they are very concerned about how adults will treat them. Even as adolescents, the delinquents in our study wondered, ‘Do these people, who are responsible for my fate, have my best interests in mind? Or will they exploit me?’

“Directors who run effective rehabilitation programs must take both types of personalities into account, and think carefully about which groups and which counselors will be most successful in reaching which personality type,” explain psychologists Martin Gold, research scientist at the Institute for Social Research, and D. Wayne Osgood, director of the Bureau of Social Research at the University of Nebraska.

Gold and Osgood report their findings in a recently released book, Personality and Peer Influence in Juvenile Corrections, published by Greenwood Press.

The researchers studied boys at four medium-security institutions in Michigan: the state-operated W.J. Maxey Boys Training School and the Adrian Training School; the private Starr Commonwealth School; and Boysville, a service of the Catholic Holy Cross Brothers.

Most of the boys in the study were 15–16 years of age at intake and from low-income families. Ninety-four percent had been charged with at least one felony such as car theft or assault and 60 percent had been arrested at least three times. Forty-four percent had been placed outside their parents’ homes at some time in the past.

The boys were interviewed on four occasions: on arrival, four months into the program, shortly before release, and six months after release. They were queried about their attitudes toward school, family and friends and asked for their assessments of their groups at the training school. The researchers also tested the boys for anxiety, depression and well-being.

“We found that the more beset boys saw life through darker lenses. They were more mistrusting; had committed delinquent acts at an earlier age; were more likely not to have lived with parents; had much weaker ties with their primary care-givers, usually their mothers; and felt more hopeless about the future.

“Unlike the buoyant boys, the autonomy from the staff, which is built into the Positive Peer Culture program, did not have much impact on their adjustment in the institution or afterwards. What mattered most to them was feeling close to a supportive staff member. And, once released, the beset boys did better if they had warm relationships with their care-givers.”

The researchers also found that:

—Six months after release, 62 percent of the boys were in school, 49 percent were employed, and 16 percent were looking for jobs.

—According to self-reports, only 25 percent had remained entirely crime-free at the six-month follow-up. “But we must remember that 80 percent of all teen-agers commit some delinquent acts—drinking, shoplifting, vandalism—so in that context, 25 percent is not bad,” the researchers noted.

—Boys who experienced some academic success through individualized lessons at the training school were much less likely to have been involved in delinquency six months later.

—Despite their tough exteriors, most of the boys preferred to be in well-behaved groups in the training school.

“The biggest problem was the boys did not believe that the other boys felt the same way,” the researchers said. “They perceived everyone else as more violent, frightening and committed to delinquency than they were, so they felt compelled to measure up to the image. Staff had to work hard to expose the desire for prosocial behavior through group discussions and to establish that behavior as the norm.”

—The most effective staff use an authoritative approach, which makes it absolutely clear that bad behavior will not be tolerated and, at the same time, makes it equally clear that staff care deeply about the delinquent and will provide emotional support for him.

“To reduce juvenile delinquency,” Gold and Osgood said, “the state must improve staff training so counselors understand how to best manage the different personality types. And second, the state must emphasize the role of the case manager, who organizes aftercare for the delinquent. We need one person in charge of all aspects of a boy’s experience, including finding the right school and a supportive teacher, obtaining any family counseling required, and so on, to make sure the boy gets what he needs to succeed.”