Teenage Virgins II

In my last post, I argued that (the truly excellent show) Friday Night Lights might unwittingly be exacerbating the mistaken idea that the vast majority of high-schoolers have sex. I worried that this discrepancy between what adolescents believe (virgins are rare) and the truth (high-school virgins are the norm) is a dangerous combination.

Here’s why I’m concerned (and what it means for public service messages with regard not only to abstinence but a host of other issues).

Robert Cialdini has shown time and again that people like to conform their behavior to that of others. His new book, Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive, is chock full of examples. Want to get hotel guests to forego daily towel cleaning? Include a message telling them that most other guests reuse their towels. Want them to recycle even more? Tell them that most people using their very room recycle.

One of my favorite examples of the powerful urge to conform with the majority comes from an experiment he ran at Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park. Conformity theory suggests the park service was sending exactly the wrong message when it posted signs saying:

Your heritage is being vandalized every day by theft losses of petrified wood of 14 tons a year, mostly a small piece at a time.

Here’s how his paper describes the experiment:

We gained permission from Petrified Forest National Park officials to place secretly marked pieces of petrified wood along visitor pathways.

Over five consecutive weekends, Cialdini and coauthors varied the signs seen at the entrance to each path. Some weekends, visitors saw a sign that, like the original park-service sign, emphasized the wrong norm:

Many past visitors have removed petrified wood from the park, changing the natural state of the Petrified Forest.

This wording was accompanied by pictures of three visitors taking wood.

Other weekends, visitors saw:

Please don’t remove the petrified wood from the park, in order to preserve the natural state of the Petrified Forest.

This wording was accompanied by a picture of a lone visitor stealing a piece of wood, with a red circle-and-bar symbol superimposed over his hand.

Sure enough the “many past visitors” framing led to more than four times the amount of pilfering of petrified wood (7.92 percent vs. 1.67 percent). But what’s truly amazing is that putting up no sign at all did a better job than putting up a sign suggesting that “everybody does it”:

In a finding that should petrify the National Park’s management, compared with a no-sign control condition in which 2.92 percent of the pieces were stolen, the social-proof message resulted in more theft (7.92 percent). In essence, it almost tripled theft. Thus, theirs was not a crime prevention strategy; it was a crime promotion strategy. (Yes!, p. 22)

I’m not calling for the writers of Friday Night Lights to change the story arc. But Cialdini’s simple idea is that public service messages would do well to implicitly tell high-schoolers: “Be like most of your peers — don’t have sex while you’re in high school.”

Indeed, Cialdini has me thinking that all those “Above the Influence” commercials are seriously off base:

These commercials implicitly suggest that most of your peers are going to be using drugs and that you have to gird yourself to be above their influence. They are too close to the signs in the Petrified Forest. Instead of saying “Don’t do what most kids your age do,” they might say “Do what most kids your age do: just say no.”

We might want to start by finding out what high-schoolers think and correct misperceptions. These spots might be a lot more effective if they change their message to implicitly say: Most high-schoolers don’t use meth. Most high-schoolers don’t binge drink. In fact, most high-schoolers don’t use drugs at all.


Interesting article.

It reminds me of the "Most of Us" campaign in Montana (http://www.mostofus.org/). They try to influence social norms in a variety of settings. For example, "Most of Us (3 out of 4) don't drink and drive." I'm not sure of the statistic, but that is the sort of campaign they have going. I had always been skeptical that the campaign worked, but now I might have to adjust my priors....


If I worked for cigarette company, and was reading this, I would be brimming with ideas of how to retool the anti-smoking ads we are required to produce...

October Fest

basically on base but a bit of comparing rocks with oranges.

The dynamic of adolescence has a built-in rebellion against "normal" that is not likely present in the typical national park visitor

Like I said, a very good insight that certainly reveals the obvious


Is there any justifyable interst in highschoolers not having sex? I mean, why would it be good? (apart from religious fundamentalism...)

Obviously, they should have !safe! sex and not get pregnant, but somewhere between 14 to 19, sex with peers seems like the thing that should happen. It's a great time to explore and feel confident about your body.


Regarding the hotel example:

Do the statistics actually back up the claim that most people recycle or decline frivolous towel service? If not, then it seems as if the book just reinforces a common conception - that lying is the scientifically proved way to be persuasive.


Very interesting.

I whole heartedly concur.

John Chase

Teachers have long known that peer pressure is absolutely the best motivator for students of all ages.

One example: One of my colleagues has a chart of objectives the students work to meet on a daily, individual basis. This is wildly successful in motivating her students. I should also mention that these are kids repeating Algebra 1.

I feel this balance in my classes all the time. If I can convince my students that everyone is doing their homework, they will tend to do more homework. If I can convince a majority to be well-behaved, everyone will be well-behaved.


#3 -

There is some truth to what you said, but I believe that the overarching dynamic in high school is an attempt to fit in. The rebellion is a rebellion against older generations, not against peers. Even when rebellion happens against peers, it does so in groups.


Teens want to rebel against the normalcy of their parents. Most are desperate to conform to teens' norms, at least they were 10 years ago when I was in high school.


@October Fest

Don't confuse rebellion against authority with rebellion against "normal". Most teenagers are desperate for acceptance. Kinds that don't fit in with the majority's "normal" find some other "normal" to conform to. e.g., goths, they all dress in black. They are very uniform in their non-conformance.

Howard Tayler

There is a a built-in rebellion bias, yes, but it is mitigated by heavy pressure to find acceptance and to conform. These social pressures will vary from teen to teen, and school to school, obviously, but they're definitely there.

More information is required. We should let Robert Cialdini start placing secretly marked virgins in the high-school populations...


If teenagers (and older) didn't give in to social pressures, there wouldn't be such a market for name brand jeans, sneakers, etc, myspace and facebook would have fallen on their face very early on, and most of the fashion decisions of the 80's would be completely inexplicable.

Even the above the influence ad itself could be easily improved by showing friends react with disgust to how sad they're friend have become. Right now it's implied- these people are doing crappy things, being made fun of, and generally unable to accomplish anything. If you're not likely to be interested in drugs in the first place, your reaction would probably be appropriate (disgust)- but that's not who they're trying to reach. The kids on the fence might actually need those kids who automatically respond "appropriately" to be shown as well.

John Squire

Interesting stuff, but with high school kids, the relevant message is that "X of Y kids in your the present and aspired-to peer groups" don't drink/smoke/etc.


This post series raises the rather obvious question (raised by numerous posters) of why do we care? There's nothing bad about teenagers having sex (as opposed to getting pregnant or catching STI's). It's not hard to argue that teenagers should be having a lot more sex, for example, if you asked teenagers what they would pay to have their parents not interfere in their sex lives, I'm willing to be the answer is a LOT. This would suggest that overrepresenting teen sexuality is actually a postitive and should be encouraged, even if some very vocal parents disagree.

National data (aside from being ambiguous as to prevalence, which other posters have addressed) is pretty irrelevant. If you go to high school in San Francisco, I sincerely doubt that the behaviour of teenagers in Provo, Utah is relevant to your decision making in any way, and vice versa.

But the real issue is that there's no reason to nudge teenagers towards having less sex; there's good reason to nudge them towards having more responsible sex, which one might argue television should actually promote, and which television could promote to some degree without losing its sex appeal


denis bider

Thoughtful and interesting article, but I definitely agree with paulsix and Psychohistorian that the premise is faulty.

"Let's use the power of peer pressure to persuade teenagers with hormones coursing through their veins to stoically face down their sexual tensions for another several years."

"Let's repress teenagers' sexuality and use peer pressure to make them think that sex is bad in and of itself."

Yeah, let us all do that.


You should have called this article Teenage Mutant Ninja Virgins.


It's just Hollywood. How many great films have I seen that had a completely unnecessar F-bomb...just because they could?

Or a somewhat explicit love scene that was unnecssary to the plot...just because they could.

Surely, surely, surely, the purpose of the arts is to both reveal beauty to us in unique ways...AND to cause us to aspire to the better angels of our nature. For instance, a book that causes us to end war, stamp out hunger, feed the poor, and so forth, is surely a work that serves the highest purpose, for it brings glory to God to do these things.

Further, art (and by "art" I mean movies, books, songs, etc.) DEFINES the world for us. To prove this point, simply consider how our notion of the Old West is shaped by movies, books, pictures, songs, and so forth. It certainly is romanticized, I'm sure, yet it also has an aspirational aspect that causes us to long for a time when justice was true and swift (even though, in reality, it might have not been justice, and it might have been too swift).

Friday Night Lights could have sent a message that celebrated virginity and sought to protect the nobility of virginity. Instead, it got in bed with every other sitcom on TV that thinks it's perfectly OK, completely natural, and, in fact, is to be preferred, to lose ones virginity before marriage.

Is that old-fashioned? Well, then I'm old-fashioned.



The statistical premise of these posts is incorrect -- if 52% of ALL high schools are virgins, then most certainly by senior year the majority are not virgins. Once a student loses their virginity, it is gone forever, presumably therefore each year more and more students are not virgins. For the 52% figure to be correct, I suspect the number of Senior virgins would have to be 40% or lower, since the mean age for loss of virginity is between 16-17, depending on sex.

Course, all these statistics are self-reported, and the awful bias in self-reporting in sex statistics is well known. IE men report an average of 7 sexual partners, women report 4. This is physically impossible unless we assume same-sex copulation to count.


Part of the survey on teenage sexual behavior has to take into account:

1. the possibility that teenagers who have sex don't want to admit it on a survey;

2. the difference between teenagers who don't have sex by choice, and those who don't by circumstance (not being attractive enough, etc.)


I still don't see why you prioritize sex on a certain, rather arbitrary, timeline.

You clearly think that virginity is preferable prior to high school graduation. Why? And why should we agree with you?

Why do you not even consider the possibility of messages that, instead of saying "do it" or "don't do it", instead say: 'Here's how to make an intelligent decision about what's right for you'? Indeed, considering the overarching theme of the show, you seem to ignore the actual conversations (the characters discussing their decision to have sex intelligently) and focus on a binary message of Yes! v. No!

The fact of the matter is that teenagers have enough hormonal and peer pressure to have sex, Friday Night Lights is probably irrelevant. And a very quick survey of their peers - teenagers like to gossip amongst themselves - will tell them whether "everyone is doing it" or not. And, frankly, it is a lot less easy to find a partner in High School than it is on TV.

If I were to take a shot in the dark I would say you were a father of a 10-15 year old (the "survey" range in your last post), probably a girl, about whom you strongly feel she shouldn't until after she's out of the house. Kinda typical dad stance. I don't know, of course, but still that sort of thinking does nothing to educate about trusting and respecting oneself and one's values and making a decision based on a that knowledge.

Until I see the underlying value of "Yes!" or "No!" messages, I don't see the point of your argument. Not that they aren't effective, but that the effect is neither good nor bad.