How Do Peers Shape the Development and Persistence of Hope and Optimism in Adolescents?

Social Dynamics and the Determinants of Adolescent Hope

  • Sociology
  • Psychology

Principal Investigators

Jason M. Fletcher
Associate Professor of Public Affairs, Sociology, Applied Economics, and Population Health Sciences
University of Wisconsin-Madison


Evidence suggests that the development and formation of hopefulness during childhood and adolescence is critical for a large number of decisions and outcomes that unfold through the remainder of life. Hopefulness influences a broad range of adolescent outcomes and choices, including health, personal adjustment, life satisfaction and school performance. Moreover, hope is related to lower levels of victimization and may be protective against involvement in violence, more generally. In addition, hopefulness during adolescence may persist into adulthood and shape important outcomes throughout the life course.

Social processes likely play a significant role in the development of hope, though there is currently limited evidence for these impacts. We believe that hopefulness is, in part, learned via social interactions with family and peers and influenced by the physical environment. That is, adolescents in part learn to be hopeful (or not) based on their interactions with others. Given the social nature of hope and its importance to adolescent trajectories and outcomes, we seek to explore the complexity of the effects of social influence on the development of hope in adolescents.

While youth in “high hope” groups appear to have better outcomes than those in “low hope” groups—a cause-and-effect relationship has been difficult to establish. Hope seems to be part of the pathway that links the relationship between how connected an adolescent is to their school and their involvement with violence and delinquency. It is not known, however, the extent to which we see “clusters of hope” in teenagers’ peer groupings and friendship networks is due to how teens choose their friends or whether their friends shape hope processes. No doubt both processes of friendship selection and friendship influence shape the clustering of adolescent hopefulness—our project will disentangle these forces to help understand their separate effects and joint importance.

To examine these social dynamics of hope in adolescents we will leverage the only available dataset that measures hope over time in a national sample of adolescents who are followed into adulthood. The dataset, the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health), provides information on a variety of social ties and social influences including friend nominations, course-mates, and extracurricular activity co-members. This allows us to explore the impacts of “peers” at multiple levels. We will measure the extent to which adolescents are surrounded by hopeful peers at the school-level, the grade level, the course level, the sports team/club level, and the friendship group-level. We will then ask whether adolescents are influenced by these various peer groups in the development of their own hope orientation/level as they age through adolescence into adulthood.

Ours will be the first exploration of the potential for social and peer influences to shape the development of orientations toward hope during adolescence as well as whether these forces are further crystalized or, instead, fade-out as the adolescents become young adults.