Delinquency as a consequence of misperception: Overestimation of friends' delinquent behavior and mechanisms of social influence

Jacob Young, Frank M. Weerman

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    60 Scopus citations


    This article examines how actors' perceptions of other people's behavior may be exaggerated and how this inaccuracy may influence behavior. More specifically, we apply these issues to improve our understanding of the correlation between delinquency of friends and individual delinquency. This relationship is one of the most replicated findings in the social sciences. However, research has not distinguished misperceptions of friends' behavior from actual behavior of friends, leaving two empirical questions unanswered. First, why do youth overestimate their friends' level of delinquency? Second, does overestimation of friends' delinquency influence one's own delinquency? We examine these questions using data from two waves of the Netherlands Institute for the Study of Crime and Law Enforcement (NSCR) School Project. These data include self-reports by school friends of their own delinquent behavior, as well as respondents' estimates of their friends' behavior, making them uniquely equipped to calculate how much respondents exaggerate the behavior of their school friends and to investigate the determinants and consequences of this overestimation. Findings indicate that youth who engage in delinquency, have attitudes supporting delinquency, and experience peer pressure are more likely to exaggerate the prevalence of delinquency in their friendship network. Also, overestimating friends' delinquency leads to more delinquency in a subsequent wave, net of actual delinquency of friends and individual and situational characteristics. Overestimating friends' delinquency has the strongest effect on individuals who value social approval, are unpopular in their school, and experience peer pressure from their friends. We conclude by discussing avenues for future research.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Pages (from-to)334-356
    Number of pages23
    JournalSocial Problems
    Issue number3
    StatePublished - Aug 2013


    • Cognitive bias
    • Delinquency
    • Measurement
    • Peers
    • Social influence

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Sociology and Political Science


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