In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Mechanisms and Processes of Peer Contagion

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Books and Anthologies
  • Journals
  • Similarity, Selection, and Socialization
  • Determinants of Deviant Peer Affiliation

Psychology Mechanisms and Processes of Peer Contagion
Michele Chan, Michaeline R. Jensen, Thomas Dishion
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 October 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 October 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0165


Peer contagion refers to the process of mutual influence that occurs between an individual and a peer. Historically, peer contagion has included influence on behaviors and emotions with potential negative developmental consequences, including aggression, bullying, weapon carrying, disordered eating, drug use, and depression. Increasingly, however, “contagion” of positive behaviors and emotions is being investigated as well. Nevertheless, in general, the study of peer influence and contagion processes has been a relatively recent one, with increased interest since the late 20th century. Mechanisms of peer influence like peer coercion, deviancy training, and even evolutionary and neural explanations for peer effects are all being increasingly studied in natural and laboratory settings. Much of the literature on peer influence focuses on childhood and adolescence, and for good reason. An abundance of evidence suggests that peer influence is strongest and most impactful among youth, though to a lesser degree adults can still be subject to social influence by their peers. Additionally, adolescence in particular seems to be a critical developmental period for social and neural processes critical to engaging with peers. Peer influence need not be intentional; in fact, individuals may engage in relationship behaviors that satisfy immediate needs for an audience or companionship, and inadvertently influence themselves or others. Peer influence processes are ubiquitous, occurring both in natural peer interaction settings and intervention settings that purposely aggregate children and adolescents together. The issue of peer contagion in intervention settings is an important one, with evidence suggesting at least some interventions that aggregate high-risk youth can have unintended, harmful iatrogenic effects.

General Overviews

The papers in this section provide a broad summary and overview of the evidence for peer influence effects as well as discuss some of the general scientific issues and challenges in establishing peer influence on child and adolescent behavior. Brechwald and Prinstein 2011 is a comprehensive review of the field of peer influence research. Dishion and Tipsord 2011 likewise examines the mechanisms of peer contagion in depth, with particular attention to the implications of peer contagion in intervention contexts. Hartup 2005 is a valuable review resource that focuses on the direction of effects in peer influence research. Rubin, et al. 2006 is not focused on peer contagion specifically, but is a useful source for understanding the theory, methods, and measurement underlying the study of peer relationships generally upon which the study of peer influence builds.

  • Brechwald, Whitney A., and Mitchell J. Prinstein. 2011. Beyond homophily: A decade of advances in understanding peer influence processes. Journal of Research on Adolescence 21.1: 166–179.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1532-7795.2010.00721.x

    This review provides an in-depth analysis of the state of the science in peer influence. Covers evidence addressing the following issues: which youth behaviors are most vulnerable to peer influence, the major sources of influence, what factors moderate peer influence, and the social and cognitive mechanisms of peer influence. The authors also discuss the potential application of behavioral neuroscience to identify the brain and behavior underpinnings of peer influence.

  • Dishion, Thomas J., and Jessica M. Tipsord. 2011. Peer contagion in child and adolescent social and emotional development. Annual Review of Psychology 62:189.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.psych.093008.100412

    This review examines the evidence for peer influence in problem behavior, eating, and diet. Evidence for a “deviancy training” process, social and cognitive mechanisms, and peer social networks are reviewed. Addresses the effects of interventions on peer contagion, including dynamics that underlie iatrogenic effects. Concludes with an analysis of individual and program factors that could amplify or detract from peer contagion in the natural environment, intervention, and educational settings.

  • Hartup, Willard W. 2005. Peer interaction: What causes what? Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology 33.3: 387–394.

    DOI: 10.1007/s10802-005-3578-0

    This scholarly review addresses the dynamics involved in peer influence processes. The review is unique with respect to attention to the methodological and conceptual issues involved in identifying the direction of influence. The paper serves as a valuable introduction to the developmental literature on peer influence.

  • Rubin, Kenneth H., William M. Bukowski, and Jeffrey G. Parker. 2006. Peer interactions, relationships, and groups. In Handbook of child psychology. 6th ed. Edited by Nancy Eisenberg, 571–645. New York: John Wiley.

    This book chapter broadly addresses peer relationships in childhood and adolescence. It includes a review of the relevant theories of peer interaction and relationships, and an overview of what is known about peer interactions, relationships, and groups across developmental periods. Also includes a useful presentation on the common ways in which children’s relationships are measured.

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