Peer pressure can play a huge role in the choices that students make in school, extending beyond the clothes they wear or music they listen to.

Think, for example, of a student deciding whether to participate in educational activities, such as raising their hand in class or signing up for enrichment programs. While these efforts may be good for a college application, they also could affect how classmates perceive the student. Pressure to not seem like a nerd could make kids refrain from taking part.

So why, exactly, do some kids shy away from showing effort in front of their peers? In a recent study, Georgy Egorov, a professor of managerial economics and decision sciences at Kellogg, and his collaborators considered two possibilities.

In some schools, perhaps kids face a social stigma for publicly making an effort to excel. The researchers called this culture “smart to be cool.” But in other schools, perhaps high achievers are popular, and students feel pressure to do well; in other words, it’s “cool to be smart.” Perhaps counterintuitively, this type of school culture could also cause kids to avoid participating if they do not view themselves as smart and don’t want to reveal their poor grasp of the material.

“If social pressure rewards high performance, then they might want to shy away from engaging if they feel unprepared,” Egorov says.

The researchers used a mathematical model, as well as a field experiment at three high schools, to confirm their prediction that the reason why students shy away from showing effort can differ depending on which of these two school cultures is predominant.

Given that, it is important for administrators to know which culture is stronger at a particular school when designing policies, Egorov says. For example, in a cool-to-be-smart school, students might be more likely to attend an after-school program if it is called “enrichment” rather than “extra help.” But in a smart-to-be-cool school, kids might find it more socially acceptable to seek “extra help” to avoid failing a class than “enrichment,” which suggests trying to excel.

Overall, the research suggests that the reasons why some students fail to take advantage of educational opportunities can differ greatly depending on the school’s overall culture.

“Many schools have kids who are underperforming,” Egorov says, “but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s all the same mechanism at work.”

An Alternate Explanation

The starting point for this research was an influential 2006 paper by Harvard economist Roland Fryer.

Fryer was interested in underperformance among minority students, and looked in particular at the role of peer pressure. He found that in some types of schools, African-American and Hispanic students become less popular as their grades increase, while white students become more popular as their grades go up.

In situations where studying hard is stigmatized by one’s peers, Fryer concluded, underperforming students may be deliberately trying not to appear engaged in school.

But what about schools that have the opposite culture, where kids are admired for being high achievers? Do students there also deliberately downplay a desire to excel? And, if they do, are they doing it for the same reasons as students in smart-to-be-cool schools?

To find out, Egorov and his collaborators, Leonardo Bursztyn at the University of Chicago and Robert Jensen at the University of Pennsylvania, first created a mathematical model to represent students in a school.

The reasons why some students fail to take advantage of educational opportunities can differ greatly depending on the school’s overall culture.

The model allowed for two types of school culture, one that rewarded high achievement and one that rewarded a lack of effort. The model also allowed students to choose to sign up for an educational activity, with their choice either being made public or kept private, as well as their performance on it being made public or kept private.

Importantly, the researchers also introduced a lottery to the model. Among the students who signed up, some of them would “win” the chance to participate in the activity.

The team showed that when the probability of “winning” the activity changed, interesting differences emerged.

In the smart-to-be-cool school, one would expect that if signing up and participating in an activity were done publicly, fewer kids would do it because they wouldn’t want to seem like they are trying hard. But what happens when the chances of winning the activity increase?

In making their decision, students are weighing two types of benefits: the social perks of their classmates’ approval if they do not appear to be trying to excel vs. the economic perks of getting a better education. When the chances of winning are low, the student is socially stigmatized for signing up and probably will not even receive the educational reward. But if the chances of winning are high, the net benefits increase. While the student still faces disapproval from peers, at least she is more likely to boost her economic prospects. And, under these circumstances, the model predicts that more students would likely sign up.

“You are more likely to sign up if at least you get something for that,” Egorov says.

In this “public” scenario, increasing the chances of winning would have the opposite effect at a cool-to-be-smart school. Students there benefit socially from signing up: showing they want to participate makes them fit in with the high achievers. So when the probability of winning is low, students can sign up to signal that they are smart without running a big risk that they will actually have to do the activity in public, which could reveal that they are low performers. If the chances of winning—and therefore having their performance made public—are high, they are less likely to sign up.

Egorov compares the situation to a teacher asking a question in class. If a low-performing student raises his hand when no one else is doing so, his chances of “winning” participation—that is, being called on by the teacher—are high. So the student is unlikely to take that risk. But if ten other kids have already raised their hands, a low-performing student might do the same to fit in with smart peers, since the teacher probably won’t call on him anyway.

“Raising your hand is safe,” Egorov says. “You try to pool with the high performers at low risk.”

Striking Differences

To test these predictions, the team visited 11th-grade classrooms at three high schools in Los Angeles: one that previous research hinted would have a smart-to-be-cool culture, and two others that the team suspected might have a cool-to-be-smart culture. (A subsequent survey of students indeed confirmed that the schools had the predicted cultures.)

To run their experiment, the researchers gave 511 students a form that offered the chance to enter a lottery to win a real SAT prep package, which would include a diagnostic test to identify strengths and weaknesses. Some forms said that the sign-up decision and test results would be completely anonymous; others hinted that the results might be visible to classmates.

The team also varied the probability of winning the lottery for the package. Some forms said the student had a 75 percent chance, while others listed a 25 percent chance.

As expected, fear of peers’ judgment seemed to drive decisions. In both types of schools, when the students’ choice and test results were private, about 80 percent signed up. But in the public scenario, that figure dropped to 53 percent.

If the experiment had stopped there, the researchers might have assumed that effort and achievement were stigmatized in all the schools.

But when researchers analyzed the results based on whether the probability of winning the lottery was high or low, a very different picture emerged. As their model predicted, changing the chance of winning in the public scenario revealed substantial differences between the two types of schools.

In the smart-to-be-cool school, sign-up rates rose from 44 percent to 62 percent when the probability of winning the lottery increased, suggesting that students were willing to risk social stigma only when they thought they stood a good chance of accessing the SAT prep package. But in cool-to-be-smart schools, sign-up rates showed the opposite pattern, dropping from 66 percent to 40 percent.

Tailored Policy Solutions

Egorov is quick to point out that the experiment was done at only three schools, so the findings should not be generalized across schools based solely on their student demographics or other observable factors, such as school location.

But, he says, the results suggest that administrators should understand their school’s culture when designing policies. For example, making class participation mandatory in a smart-to-be cool school could reduce the stigma of raising one’s hand. But in a cool-to-be-smart school, the same policy could provoke struggling students to disrupt class so they can avoid participating.