School & District Management

Changing How Teens Think About Social Aggression

By Sarah D. Sparks — February 12, 2013 3 min read
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Cross-posted from Inside School Research

For a teenager who has been bullied, it can feel like everyone is against him, and every comment can turn into a snide remark. Yet research shows middle and high school social dynamics are constantly in flux, and today’s victim may be tomorrow’s harasser and next Monday’s staunch defender. A new study suggests that helping teenagers understand how people change in different situations can reduce their own hostility.

In “Implicit Theories of Personality and Attributions of Hostile Intent: A Meta-Analysis, an Experiment, and a Longitudinal Intervention,” published this morning in the journal Child Development, researchers led by David Scott Yeager of the University of Texas at Austin, and including Adriana Miu of Emory University and Joseph Powers and Carol S. Dweck of Stanford University, built in part on Dweck’s work on how a student’s mindset affects how he or she experiences the world.

We have decades of research showing that a student who believes intelligence is malleable rather than fixed will put forth more effort to learn and will be more likely to succeed.

Furthermore, teaching a student that intelligence can be increased through work can change his or her mindset. This new study applies the same logic to teenagers’ hostility, with equally promising results.

Yeager and his colleagues conducted eight studies of more than 1,600 8th-10th graders of varying income levels, ethnicity and gender, testing their beliefs about whether people are nice or bullying is an “ingrained” feature. Then they asked the students to review scenarios in which a person’s actions might be construed as benign or hostile—for example, if the student was bumped into in the school’s hallway, was that an accident, or harassment? And what would the student do about it? The researchers then separately tested students using a simulated game in which two other students appeared to exclude the student during a round of “cyber ball,” a version of catch. In both scenarios, it was made ambiguous whether the other students had intentionally harmed or snubbed the first student.

The researchers found that students who saw personality as fixed were more likely to see ambiguous situations as hostile—even after controlling for how much the student had personally experienced bullying.

“Teens in this ‘fixed’ mindset, even after a minor offense like getting bumped in the hall or being left out of a game of catch, relegated peers to the ‘bad person’ group, decided that they had offended on purpose, and want aggressive revenge,” said Yeager, an assistant professor of developmental psychology, in a statement.

After this, a group of the students read a paper on brain plasticity and read and wrote letters to and from other students about how people change over time. The researchers found that teaching students that people could change made them see ambiguous scenarios with more nuance, and over time, doing so actually reduced students’ professed desire for revenge for as long as eight months after the intervention, and reduced actual aggressive behavior in one of the six high schools studied.

“Usually when the public thinks about aggression, we mainly think about violent environments as causes,” Yeager notes. “And then we think that by the high school years, this aggression is deeply ingrained. We don’t often realize that changing a simple belief can also affect aggression,” Yeager said in a statement on the study. “Our findings may lead to more broad thinking about the factors that contribute to youth aggression and about methods to prevent it, even in populations not typically thought of as at risk for hostile bias.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.