Delinquents and their Friends: The role of peer effects and self-selection

Open Access
Ackerman, Jeffrey M.
Graduate Program:
Crime, Law and Justice
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
June 23, 2003
Committee Members:
  • Richard B Felson, Committee Chair
  • D Wayne Osgood, Committee Member
  • Michael Paul Johnson, Committee Member
  • Joseph Francis Schafer, Committee Member
  • interpersonal-influence
  • peers
  • delinquency
  • friends
  • adolescents
  • gender
This project examines the close behavioral similarity between adolescent friends, a finding that scholars have consistently observed in prior research. Ostensibly, the similarity suggests that friends mutually influence one another through the reinforcement of pro-delinquent values, the modeling of skills necessary to commit criminal offenses, and/or the normative conformity to behavioral expectations. An alternative interpretation, however, is that the behavioral similarity reflects the reality that adolescents prefer friendships with like-minded peers. In other words, adolescents self-select friends who already behave as they do. Measurement artifact is another explanation of the similarity, which occurs because researchers have often obtained information about an adolescent’s friends from survey respondents themselves rather than from the friends directly. Survey respondents, however, often fail to report their friends’ behaviors accurately. This project also examines the relative degree to which males and females conform to their peers, a long-standing issue in social psychology. The social psychological evidence often suggests that females are more conforming than males are; however, evidence also exists that group differences and other aspects of conformity are behavior specific. Therefore, research suggesting that females conform more to group opinion about light movement or innocuous behaviors may not generalize to delinquent outcomes. In order to more fully examine these issues, this thesis uses data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health, a recently available data set based upon a large, nationally representative sample of high school students. Using these data, this project examines how closely changes in adolescent delinquency correspond to changes in the behavior of their friends. It also examines the role that delinquency plays in friendship selection and termination. The major findings include: (a) correspondence between changes in male respondent delinquency and changes in male friend delinquency, (b) little to no evidence for the importance of delinquency for friendship termination decisions, (c) evidence of same-gender rather than opposite-gender short-term effects, and (d) a modest delinquent similarity among adolescent friends measured prior to the formation of the friendship that may be explained by similarity in characteristics associated with delinquency.