An experimental examination of peers' influence on adolescent girls' intent to engage in maladaptive weight-related behaviors

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Social psychological theories provide bases for understanding how social comparison processes may impact peer influence. This study examined two peer characteristics that may impact peer influence on adolescent girls' weight-related behavior intentions: body size and popularity.


A school-based sample of 66 9th grade girls (12–15 years old) completed an experimental paradigm in which they believed they were interacting with other students (i.e., “e-confederates”). The body size and popularity of the e-confederates were experimentally manipulated. Participants were randomly assigned to one of the three experimental conditions in which they were exposed to identical maladaptive weight-related behavior norms communicated by ostensible female peers who were either: (1) Thin and Popular; (2) Thin and Average Popularity; or (3) Heavy and Average Popularity. Participants' intent to engage in weight-related behaviors was measured pre-experiment and during public and private segments of the experiment.


A significant effect of condition on public conformity was observed. Participants exposed to peers' maladaptive weight-related behavior norms in the Heavy and Average condition reported significantly less intent to engage in weight-related behaviors than participants in either of the thin-peer conditions (F(2) = 3.93, p = .025). Peer influence on private acceptance of weight-related behavior intentions was similar across conditions (F(2) = .47, p = .63).


Body size comparison may be the most salient component of peer influence processes on weight-related behaviors. Peer influence on weight-related behavior intention also appears to impact private beliefs. Considering peer norms in preventive interventions combined with dissonance-based approaches may be useful. © 2014 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. (Int J Eat Disord 2014; 47:437–447)

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