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October 18, 2011

When do children feel worst about being aggressive?

Roos, S., Salmivalli, C., & Hodges, E.V.E. (2011). Person X context effects on anticipated moral emotions following aggression. Social Development, 20 (4), 685-702.

These authors were interested in the ‘moral emotions’ that children expect to experience if they are aggressive toward a same-age peer. By ‘moral emotions’ they specifically  focus on feelings of guilt, shame, and pride. They summarise previous work which indicates that there do exist differences between bullies, victims, and outsiders (children uninvolved in bullying). However, the authors note that it is important to look not only at general ‘trait-like’ differences (e.g. whether someone has a stable tendency to feel guilty when they are aggressive toward others) but also toward aspects of the situation which might influence these emotional reactions. By doing this, they hope to open up new avenues of intervention.

Here, context was thought of as either
  • The social context (whether no one else was present, most liked classmates were there, or whether the whole class was looking), or
  • The victim’s reactions (whether a victim responds in a neutral, sad, or angry way).

The authors make specific predictions about how these issues might influence the experience of moral emotion. I found it interesting that they based this on issues of power among children. Drawing on Keltner et al’s (2003) theory, they suggest that high-power children (e.g. bullies) are less sensitive to social context than low-power children (e.g. victims) because low-power children need to be on the lookout for possible threats and dangers more.

The research took place in Turku, Finland, and data analyses were based on 376 children from five schools. Children had a mean age of 11.3 years old. Aggression was assessed by asking children to say who in their classroom was aggressive. To assess the moral emotional reactions, all the children completed a series of vignettes – these were short stories where one child was being aggressive to another. Across the vignettes the emotional response of the victims was varied between neutral, sad, and angry, as was the social context (alone, the aggressors most liked classmates were there, or the whole class was there).

Children who were most often nominated as aggressive were the least likely to report they would feel guilty or ashamed if they were aggressive, but levels of aggression were not related to pride, indifference or anger. Children who said they felt ashamed also said they felt guilty so the authors suggest that it is very likely they feel both at the same time. Girls scored higher on guilt and shame and boys were higher on pride.

  • Effects of witness presence: No effect on whether children reported that they expected to feel guilty, proud or indifferent after being aggressive. However, shame was lower for when ‘most liked peers’ watched than when either the whole class or no one at all was present (and this was most obvious for boys). Also, anger was highest when the whole class was watching and lowest when ‘most liked peers’ watched.
  • Effect of victim reactions: No effect on whether children reported that they expected to feel proud after being aggressive. However, children said they’d feel more guilty if the victim looked sad than if the victim were angry or showed no emotion. They also said they would feel most ashamed if the victim were sad, less so if they were anger, and least ashamed if they showed no emotion. Finally, children said they’d be most likely to feel angry if they victim were also angry rather than sad or unemotional.
  • Power: The aggression levels of the child also had an influence. Children who were high-power (i.e. those were who were most often nominated as aggressive) were less sensitive to contextual cues than those who were low-power.

I enjoyed this paper because it tackled a difficult issue, but also because it is an issue that relates directly to intervention – young people are often told to ignore bullies or to show that they don’t care. But these results suggest that this may mean that aggressors don’t feel as bad about what they have done. That might mean they carry on for longer, not that they stop more quickly. However, the results also suggest that victims who react angrily are not being helped either since this was associated with a more angry reaction from the aggressor. Rather, it was when a victim was sad that the aggressor was most likely to feel moral emotions which might lead them to stop what they’re doing (shame).

Of course, the methods used here were based on vignettes – “If this happened, what do you think you’d feel?”. So it is possible that children may respond very differently when faced with these situations in real life. But the paper still makes an interesting first stab at these interesting questions.

Reference:
Keltner, D., Gruenfeld, D.H., & Anderson, C. (2003). Power, approach, and inhibition. Psychological Review, 110, 265–284.

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