Prevention Science

, Volume 16, Issue 1, pp 70–79 | Cite as

Misperception of Peer Weight Norms and Its Association with Overweight and Underweight Status Among Adolescents

  • Jessica M. PerkinsEmail author
  • H. Wesley Perkins
  • David W. Craig


Previous research has revealed pervasive misperceptions of peer norms for a variety of behaviors among adolescents such as alcohol use, smoking, and bullying and that these misperceptions are predictors of personal behavior. Similarly, misperception of peer weight norms may be a pervasive and important risk factor for adolescent weight status. Thus, the comparative association of actual and perceived peer weight norms is examined in relation to personal weight status. Secondary school students in 40 middle and high schools (n = 40,328) were surveyed about their perceptions of the peer weight norm for same gender and grade within their school. Perceived norms were compared to aggregate self-reports of weight for these same groups. Overestimation of peer weight norms by more than 5 % occurred among 26 % of males and 20 % of females (by 22 and 16 lb on average, respectively). Underestimation occurred among 38 % of males as well as females (by 16 and 13 lb on average, respectively). Personal overweight status based on body mass index (BMI) was much more prevalent among respondents who overestimated peer weight norms as was personal underweight status among respondents who underestimated norms. Perception of the peer norm was the strongest predictor of personal BMI among all personal and school variables examined for both male and female students. Thus, reducing misperceived weight norms should be given more attention as a potential avenue for preventing obesity and eating disorders.


Perceived norms Social norms Misperceptions BMI Adolescents School 


  1. Ali, M. M., Amialchuk, A., & Heiland, F. W. (2011). Weight-related behavior among adolescents: The role of peer effects. PLoS ONE, 6, e21179. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0021179.PubMedCentralCrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  2. Bergstrom, R. L., & Neighbors, C. (2006). Body image disturbance and the social norms approach: An integrative review of the literature. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 25, 975–1000. doi: 10.1521/jscp.2006.25.9.975.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Brener, N. D., McManus, T., Galuska, D. A., Lowry, R., & Wechsler, H. (2003). Reliability and validity of self-reported height and weight among high school students. Journal of Adolescent Health, 32, 281–287.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  4. Brener, N. D., Eaton, D. K., Lowry, R., & McManus, T. (2004). The association between weight perception and BMI among high school students. Obesity Research, 12, 1866–1874. doi: 10.1016/S1054-139X(02)00708-5.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  5. CDC (2011b). A SAS program for the CDC growth charts. Accessed 10 Jan 2008.
  6. Christakis, N. A., & Fowler, J. H. (2007). The spread of obesity in a large social network over 32 years. New England Journal of Medicine, 357, 370–379. doi: 10.1056/NEJMsa066082.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  7. Clemens, H., Thombs, D., Olds, R. S., & Gordon, K. L. (2008). Normative beliefs as risk factors for involvement in unhealthy weight control behavior. Journal of American College Health, 56, 635–641. doi: 10.3200/JACH.56.6.635-642.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  8. Data Tools (2008). National Center for Education Statistics Accessed 10 Jan 2008.
  9. DeJong, W., Schneider, S. K., Towvim, L. G., Murphy, M. J., Doerr, E. E., Simonsen, N. R., et al. (2006). A multisite randomized trial of social norms marketing campaigns to reduce college student drinking. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 67, 868–879. doi: 10.1080/08897070902802059.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Eisenberg, M. E., Neumark-Sztainer, D., Story, M., & Perry, C. L. (2005). The role of social norms and friends’ influences on unhealthy weight-control behaviors among adolescent girls. Social Science & Medicine, 60, 1165–1173. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2004.06.055.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Eisenberg, M. E., Wall, M., Shim, J. J., Bruening, M., Loth, K., & Neumark-Sztainer, D. (2012). Associations between friends’ disordered eating and muscle-enhancing behaviors. Social Science & Medicine, 75, 2242–2249. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2012.08.024.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Goodman, E., & Strauss, R. S. (2003). Self-reported height and weight and the definition of obesity in epidemiological studies. Journal of Adolescent Health, 33, 140–141. doi: 10.1016/S1054-139X(03)00247-7. author reply 141-142.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  13. Goodman, E., Hinden, B. R., & Khandelwal, S. (2000). Accuracy of teen and parental reports of obesity and body mass index. Pediatrics, 106, 52–58.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  14. Grossbard, J. R., Neighbors, C., & Larimer, M. E. (2011). Perceived norms for thinness and muscularity among college students: What do men and women really want? Eating Behaviors, 12, 192–199. doi: 10.1016/j.eatbeh.2011.04.005.PubMedCentralCrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  15. Haines, M. P., & Spear, S. F. (1996). Changing the perception of the norm: A strategy to decrease binge drinking among college students. Journal of American College Health, 45, 134–140.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  16. Haines, M. P., Barker, G. P., & Rice, R. (2003). Using social norms to reduce alcohol and tobacco use in two midwestern high schools. In H. W. Perkins (Ed.), The social norms approach to preventing school and college age substance abuse: A handbook for educators, counselors, and clinicians (pp. 235–244). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
  17. Hansen, W. B., & Graham, J. W. (1991). Preventing alcohol, marijuana, and cigarette use among adolescents: Peer pressure resistance training versus establishing conservative norms. Preventive Medicine, 20, 414–430.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  18. Kilmer, J. R., Walker, D. D., Lee, C. M., Palmer, R. S., Mallett, K. A., Fabiano, P., et al. (2006). Misperceptions of college student marijuana use: Implications for prevention. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 67, 277–281.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Lally, P., Bartle, N., & Wardle, J. (2011). Social norms and diet in adolescents. Appetite, 57, 623–627. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2011.07.015.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  20. Linkenbach, J., & Perkins, H. W. (2003). Most of us are tobacco free: An eight-month social norms campaign reducing youth initiation of smoking in Montana. In H. W. Perkins (Ed.), The social norms approach to preventing school and college age substance abuse: A handbook for educators, counselors, and clinicians (pp. 224–234). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
  21. Mackey, E. R., & La Greca, A. M. (2007). Adolescents’ eating, exercise, and weight control behaviors: Does peer crowd affiliation play a role? Journal of Pediatric Psychology, 32, 13–23. doi: 10.1093/jpepsy/jsl041.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  22. Martens, M. P., Page, J. C., Mowry, E. S., Damann, K. M., Taylor, K. K., & Cimini, M. D. (2006). Differences between actual and perceived student norms: An examination of alcohol use, drug use, and sexual behavior. Journal of American College Health, 54, 295–300. doi: 10.3200/JACH.54.5.295-300.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  23. Mattern, J. L., & Neighbors, C. (2004). Social norms campaigns: Examining the relationship between changes in perceived norms and changes in drinking levels. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 65, 489–493.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Mueller, A. S., Pearson, J., Muller, C., Frank, K., & Turner, A. (2010). Sizing up peers: Adolescent girls’ weight control and social comparison in the school context. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 51, 64–78.PubMedCentralCrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  25. Mutterperl, J. A., & Sandeson, C. A. (2002). Mind over matter: Internalization of the thinness norm as a moderator of responsiveness to norm misperception education in college women. Health Psychology, 21, 519–523. doi: 10.1037/0278-6133.21.5.519.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  26. Neighbors, C., Larimer, M. E., & Lewis, M. A. (2004). Targeting misperceptions of descriptive drinking norms: Efficacy of a computer-delivered personalized normative feedback intervention. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 72, 434–447. doi: 10.1037/0022-006X.72.3.434.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  27. Neighbors, C., Dillard, A. J., Lewis, M. A., Bergstrom, R. L., & Neil, T. A. (2006). Normative misperceptions and temporal precedence of perceived norms and drinking. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 67, 290–299.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Neumark-Sztainer, D., Wall, M. M., Larson, N., Story, M., Fulkerson, J. A., Eisenberg, M. E., et al. (2012). Secular trends in weight status and weight-related attitudes and behaviors in adolescents from 1999 to 2010. Preventive Medicine, 54, 77–81. doi: 10.1016/j.ypmed.2011.10.003.PubMedCentralCrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  29. Ogden, C. L., Carroll, M. D., Kit, B. K., & Flegal, K. M. (2012). Prevalence of obesity and trends in body mass index among US children and adolescents, 1999-2010. Journal of the American Medical Association, 307, 483–490. doi: 10.1001/jama.2012.40.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  30. Paxton, S. J., Schutz, H. K., Wertheim, E. H., & Muir, S. L. (1999). Friendship clique and peer influences on body image concerns, dietary restraint, extreme weight-loss behaviors, and binge eating in adolescent girls. Journal of Abnormal Pyschology, 108, 255–266. doi: 10.1037/0021-843X.108.2.255.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Perkins, H.W. (1997). College student misperceptions of alcohol and other drug norms among peers: Exploring causes, consequences, and implications for prevention programs. In Designing Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention Programs in Higher Education: Bringing Theory into Practice (pp. 177-206). Newton, MA: Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention.Google Scholar
  32. Perkins, H. W. (2002). Social norms and the prevention of alcohol misuse in collegiate contexts. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 14, 164–172.Google Scholar
  33. Perkins, H. W. (Ed.). (2003). The social norms approach to preventing school and college age substance abuse: A handbook for educators, counselors, and clinicians. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
  34. Perkins, H. W. (2007). Misperceptions of peer drinking norms in Canada: Another look at the “reign of error” and its consequences among college students. Addictive Behaviors, 32, 2645–2656. doi: 10.1016/j.addbeh.2007.07.007.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  35. Perkins, H. W., & Craig, D. W. (2003). The imaginary lives of peers: Patterns of substance use and misperceptions of norms among secondary school students. In H. W. Perkins (Ed.), The social norms approach to preventing school and college age substance abuse: A handbook for educators, counselors, and clinicians (pp. 209–223). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
  36. Perkins, H. W., & Craig, D. W. (2006). A successful social norms campaign to reduce alcohol misuse among college student-athletes. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 67, 880–889.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Perkins, H. W., & Craig, D. W. (2012). Student-athletes’ misperceptions of male and female peer drinking norms: A multi-site investigation of the “reign of error”. Journal of College Student Development, 53, 367–382. doi: 10.1353/csd.2012.0046.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Perkins, H. W., Meilman, P. W., Leichliter, J. S., Cashin, J. R., & Presley, C. A. (1999). Misperceptions of the norms for the frequency of alcohol and other drug use on college campuses. Journal of American College Health, 47, 253–258. doi: 10.1080/07448489909595656.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  39. Perkins, H. W., Haines, M. P., & Rice, R. (2005). Misperceiving the college drinking norm and related problems: A nationwide study of exposure to prevention information, perceived norms and student alcohol misuse. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 66, 470–478.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Perkins, H. W., Linkenbach, J. W., Lewis, M. A., & Neighbors, C. (2010). Effectiveness of social norms media marketing in reducing drinking and driving: A statewide campaign. Addictive Behaviors, 35, 866–874. doi: 10.1016/j.addbeh.2010.05.004.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  41. Perkins, J. M., Perkins, H. W., & Craig, D. W. (2010a). Misperceptions of peer norms as a risk factor for sugar-sweetened beverage consumption among secondary school students. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 110, 1916–1921. doi: 10.1016/j.jada.2010.09.008.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  42. Perkins, J. M., Perkins, H. W., & Craig, D. W. (2010b). Peer weight norm misperception as a risk factor for being over and underweight among UK secondary school students. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 64, 965–971. doi: 10.1038/ejcn.2010.106.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  43. Perkins, H. W., Craig, D. W., & Perkins, J. M. (2011). Using social norms to reduce bullying: A research intervention among adolescents in five middle schools. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 14, 703–722. doi: 10.1177/1368430210398004.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Strauss, R. S. (1999). Comparison of measured and self-reported weight and height in a cross-sectional sample of young adolescents. International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders, 23, 904–908.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  45. Thomas, W. L., & Thomas, D. S. (1928). The child in America. New York: Knopf.Google Scholar
  46. Turner, J., Perkins, H. W., & Bauerle, J. (2008). Declining negative consequences related to alcohol misuse among students exposed to a social norms marketing intervention on a college campus. Journal of American College Health, 57, 85–94. doi: 10.3200/JACH.57.1.85-94.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  47. Wambeam, R.A., Canen, E.L., Linkenbach, J., & Otto, J. (2013). Youth misperceptions of peer substance use norms: A hidden risk factor in state and community prevention. Prevention Science, 1-10. doi:  10.1007/s11121-013-0384-8.

Copyright information

© Society for Prevention Research 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jessica M. Perkins
    • 1
    Email author
  • H. Wesley Perkins
    • 2
  • David W. Craig
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of Health PolicyHarvard UniversityCambridgeUSA
  2. 2.Department of Anthropology and SociologyHobart and William Smith CollegesGenevaUSA
  3. 3.Department of ChemistryHobart and William Smith CollegesGenevaUSA

Personalised recommendations