May 19, 2011

Which thoughts lead to aggressive behaviors?

Peets, K., Hodges, E.V.E., & Salmivalli, C. (2011). Actualization of social cognitions into aggressive behavior toward disliked targets. Social Development, 20 (2), 233-250.

This study aimed to better understand how children’s thoughts related to the extent to which they were aggressive toward other children they disliked. The specific thoughts the authors were interested in were taken from social information processing theory (see Crick & Dodge, 1994). They wanted to look at
(i) the tendency for children think others are acting in a threatening way, even when the other child’s actions are ambiguous. This is called a Hostile Attribution Bias.
(ii) how confident children are that they can be ‘successfully’ aggressive (e.g. whether they could easily push someone over)
(iii) how angry the child thinks they would be in different social situations.

The authors looked at the degree to which these different thoughts explain children’s aggression toward other children whom they disliked. They were also interested in whether the length of time that the ‘disliking’ had gone on had an effect, and whether the extent to which both children were known to be aggressive had an effect.

Children in this study were 195 11-12 year olds (56% were girls) from Finland. These children provided information at two time points, one year apart from each other. All children reported who they disliked in class, and all reported on how aggressive other children in their class were. Everything else of interest (the specific thoughts outlined above) were assessed by presenting short stories and asking the children questions about these.

This study found that children who expected to feel high levels of anger in social situations, and who were confident in their use of aggression, were more likely to be aggressive – but this was most true when they had disliked someone for a long time.

They also found that certain thoughts were closely linked to specific types of aggression. The Hostile Attribution Bias predicted ‘reactive’ aggression (a kind of hot-headed aggression, e.g. being knocked over and reacting by jumping up and hitting whoever knocked you over). In contrast, the degree to which children were confident about being aggressive toward other children predicted their ‘proactive’ aggression (a more calculated, premeditated type of aggression – like bullying).

Of particular interest to me was the finding that children were more likely to be proactively aggressive when the child they were being aggressive toward was themselves reactively aggressive. This suggest that bullies might deliberately pick on other children who they know will try to fight back, and that in turn might suggest that they are confident that the victim’s efforts will be unsuccessful. This reinforces the anti-bullying advice that if often offered i.e. if someone is picking on you, ignoring them might be the best way to get them to leave you alone.

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