Becker Friedman Institute
for Research in Economics
The University of Chicago

Research. Insights. Impact. Advancing the Legacy of Chicago Economics.

Cool to be Smart or Smart to be Cool? Understanding Peer Pressure in Education

December 2016
Leonardo Bursztyn, Georgy Egorov, and Robert Jensen

Concerns about social image may negatively affect schooling behavior. We identify two potentially important peer cultures: one that stigmatizes effort (thus, where it is “smart to be cool”) and one
that rewards ability (where it is “cool to be smart”). We build a model showing that either may lower the takeup of educational activities when takeup and performance are potentially observable
to peers. We design a field experiment allowing us to test whether students are influenced by these concerns at all, and then which they are more influenced by. We examine high schools in
two settings: a low-income, high minority share area and a higher-income, lower minority share area. In both settings, peer pressure reduces takeup of an SAT prep package. We show that this is
consistent with a greater concern for hiding effort in the lower-income school, and a greater concern with hiding low ability in the higher-income schools.