In school, stereotypes abound. The jocks are the ones that play hard and party harder, while the nerds stay home, wrapped up in books. These widely-held stereotypes happen to be dramatic misperceptions, however, according to a new study, with many teens making inaccurate assumptions about what their peers actually get up to.

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The athletically-oriented jock is a common stereotype recognized in schools across the US.

Research published in Developmental Psychology suggests that teenagers tend to overestimate the amount of drugs and alcohol that their peers use, as well as underestimating the amount of studying and exercise they do.

These misconceptions could in turn lead to teens engaging in potentially risky behavior in order to follow social norms that do not exist.

“The behavior of all types of kids are grossly misunderstood or misperceived by adolescents, not just the jocks and the populars but also the brains and the burnouts,” says senior investigator Prof. Mitch Prinstein. “Adolescents tend to conform to stereotypes that we have seen in ‘The Breakfast Club,’ but those stereotypes do not exist as dramatically as we once thought.”

In John Hughes’ 1985 film, a seemingly disparate group of teenagers – “a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal” – are placed in detention together, eventually coming to realize that they are all more alike than their stereotyping led them to believe.

For the study, researchers assessed the behaviors and perceptions of 235 10th-graders in attendance at a middle-income suburban school.

Each of the participants was assigned a reputation-based social group according to a method frequently used in adolescent research. Participants were identified as one of the following:

  • Socially-oriented “populars”
  • Athletically-oriented “jocks”
  • Deviant-oriented “burnouts”
  • Academically-oriented “brains”
  • Students who had no strong affiliation to any particular group.

Students defined as populars or jocks were also identified as high-status, as a result of ranking higher in likability than the burnout and brain groups.

Each participant confidentially reported their own behaviors – including alcohol use, sexual behavior and study time – along with what they perceived the behaviors of their peers to be. This data allowed the researchers to compare the actual and perceived behavior of the different social groups.

The researchers found that across the study the participants had “gross misconceptions” of the behavior of their peers, even among members of their own social groups.

Cigarette use was perceived to be much higher in jock and burnout groups than it was in reality. For example, while burnouts reported smoking two to three cigarettes per day, their peers estimated that they smoked half a pack to a whole pack.

In contrast, on average, the brainy group only studied for about half the time that their peers believed they did.

Jocks were perceived to smoke more, consume more alcohol and have more sex than they did in reality. The researchers found that in fact, the high-status groups reported levels of sexual and legally deviant behavior that were not dissimilar to those reported in the burnout and brainy groups.

“Results indicated that peer crowd stereotypes are caricatures,” write the authors. Unfortunately for teenagers, these misconceptions could lead them down risky paths through trying to fit in with the crowd, as suggested by the second branch of the study.

For the second part of their research, the authors followed a group of 166 9th-graders at a low-income rural school for 2.5 years, examining the relationship between their perceptions of high-status peers and their own drug use.

The researchers observed that increases reported in the adolescents’ cigarette, marijuana and alcohol use were reflected in their perceptions of the high-status students’ own substance use. Students that believed their popular peers were engaging in substance use in 9th grade were at a higher risk of engaging in these behaviors themselves in 11th grade.

Students with higher perceptions of their peers substance use had much steeper increases in their own engagement with this behavior, suggesting to the study authors that these misperceptions could increase the chances of risky behavior.

“This quest for identity can sometimes lead adolescents in the wrong direction,” says co-author Prof. Geoffrey Cohen. The authors suggest that these misperceptions could be used to predict the risk of adolescents engaging in risking behaviors.

“The implications… are troubling,” they conclude. “Results suggest that adolescents have a caricatured perception of their peers’ behavior (perhaps especially so for high-status peers) and are influenced by those gross misperceptions.”

Future research may need to investigate how these misperceptions can be tackled. Although it worked well in Hughes’ movie, imprisoning the nation’s adolescents in weekend detention would be an impractical solution to this problem.

Last month, Medical News Today reported on a study finding that e-cigarette use among teenagers in the US is on the rise, particularly in Hawaii.