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August 31, 2011

Gossip makes the heart grow fonder: Relational aggression and friendship quality.

Banny, A.M., Heilbron, N., Ames, A., & Prinstein, M.J. (2011). Relational benefits of relational aggression: Adaptive and maladaptive associations with adolescent friendship quality. Developmental Psychology, 47 (4), 1153-1166.

This summary is a little different from previous posts, mainly because it is longer than I usually post. There are two reasons for this: First, there are two studies reported in the article, and second I really enjoyed reading the paper and want to get across why I think it is so interesting! If anything in the summary is confusing or unclear, please be sure to post a comment and I’ll soon respond.

As we have covered in previous posts, relational aggression involves behaviour which isn’t physically based; rather, it is aggression which aims to harm another person’s relationships and/or social standing. These authors note that this has been investigated in terms of its negative outcomes, but that less is known about its benefits. This is an interesting angle to take – after all, it is sensible to assume that using aggression has benefits for children  otherwise there would be little point in using it. If all aggression were maladaptive (only had negative outcomes for the aggressor) we would expect it to dissipate over time.

These authors were investigating relational aggression, friendship quality (both positive and negative). They note that relational aggression has been associated with both positive (intimacy, support) and negative (conflict, criticism, dominance) aspects of friendship in other research (though there were limitations to those studies, which I won't go into here). They suggest that some children may be attracted to dominant and relationally aggressive children because of a ‘halo’ effect i.e. some of the dominant child’s social standing can rub off on them. Intimacy is an issue which may be especially closely associated with relational aggression, reflecting the possible benefits of gossiping. What are these benefits?
  • Well, gossiping about others may increase intimacy in a friendship foster intimacy because sharing (someone else’s) private information suggests that the friend can be trusted with it (“wow, they must really trust me to tell me that”). 
  • If a relationally aggressive child is thought to be ‘putting themselves out there’ i.e. going out on a limb by spreading malicious gossip and opinions, then this may increase feelings of solidarity (“they’re saying what I’m thinking... hey, we really are alike”).
  • Excluding others and spreading gossip may also help young people to feel like they are part of a group and to promote a feeling that there is a close bond among friends.

Relational aggression can, of course, also lead to problems. For example, exclusion of others may become exclusivity in a friendship and may be linked to feelings of envy or jealousy.

These authors designed two very different studies to examine these issues.

Study 1:
This study was designed to look at the longitudinal relations between relational aggression and friendship quality (positive and negative) in stable, reciprocal friendships. This means that the authors were looking to see how relational aggression at one point in time predicted friendship at a second point of time. They were able to take into account friendship quality at the first point in time too. “Stable, reciprocal friendships” were friendships where two young people nominated each other as a best-friend on both occasions when data were collected.

Analyses were based on a total of 62 adolescents (58% female) who were in Grades 6, 7, and 8 at the start of the study (i.e. aged approx 11, 12, and 13). These were a subset of a larger data set of 520 students who all took part at two points in time (time 1 and time 2 were separated by 11 months). The subset were the stable, reciprocal friendships. At both points in time, participants had to nominate who in their class were their closest friends and who was their very best friends. They also nominated who in their class was relationally aggressive, and also who was overtly aggressive (this latter measure was taken because the two types of aggressive tend to go hand in hand so it is important to statistically ‘remove’ the effects of overt aggression when conducting the analysis). Friendship quality was assessed using self-report scales.

Comparing boys and girls, girls had more positive friendship qualities. No other gender differences (on overt or relational aggression, or on negative friendship qualities) were significant.

The finding from the longitudinal data was both simple and potentially very telling: the more relationally aggressive a child was at Time 1, the more they considered the positive qualities of their friendship to improve at Time 2. But here’s the rub: the relationally aggressive child’s friend did not think the positive friendship qualities had improved. So, relationally aggressive children saw their best-friendships are getting better over time, while their best-friends did not see the same increase in positive qualities (note that the best friend did not report a decrease either).

There were no relationships for negative friendship qualities – being relationally aggressive made no difference to later negative outcomes. It is important here to remember that these results are for adolescents in enduring reciprocated best friendships. A potential criticism is that this group may be characterised by lower levels of relational aggression anyway, and so we might expect that their negative friendship qualities would not be affected (or be affected less so) than young people in less enduring relationships. The authors note that the reciprocal friendship group did display lower levels of relational aggression than those not in longitudinal reciprocated best friendships – however, levels of relational aggression did not predicted whether a friendship would dissolve or not.

Study 2
This second study really took me by surprise – actually observing aggressive interactions is rarely done in research on children and young people’s aggressive behaviour because of the practical difficulties involved. However, here they used observational methods to examine how “relationally aggressive talk” (e.g. saying negative things about others in a gossipy way, trying to change the relationship between who is there and who is not) might link to friendship quality. The authors focussed on this form of talk because they are the types of behaviours that other young people might not be able to see (and so might have been less likely to be reported in Study 1).

In this second study, there were 56 adolescents (47% female) in Grades 9 and 10 (about 14 to 16 years old) who asked a best friend to also take part. They attended a laboratory session where they completed a questionnaire (assessing friendship quality) and took part in an activity which was recorded. The target participants (those who invited someone else to take part) also took part in a telephone interview 6 months later (again assessing friendship quality). In observations, the pairs asked to discuss a number of things for 5 minutes each (e.g. planning a party). Of particular interested was the section where they had to talk about their peer group. Relationally aggressive behaviours were assessed by looking at the recordings.

As in the Study 1, girls had higher positive friendship qualities and there were no other gender differences.

The authors then took a different approach to the one taken in Study 1. They compared  friendships where either
  1. both members said the other was their ‘best friend’ at both time points, or 
  2. one said ‘best friend’ and the other said ‘close friend’ at one of the time points. 
They were able to do this because they asked the young people taking part to say, in private, whether their partner was a ‘best’ or ‘close’ friend. The extent to which the target child engaged in relationally aggressive talk at time 1 predicted increases in positive friendship quality at time 2 – however, this was only true for the group (1). For group (2) relationally aggressive talk at time 1 was not related to negative friendship quality at time 2. I thought this was really interesting – it suggests that the positive benefits of engaging in relational aggression may be restricted to very close friendships. It was also interesting to see that in both of the studies reported here relational aggression did not harm friendships quality it seemed to be a no-loss situation where the young person would either improve the quality of their friendship, or there would be no impact.
Of course, there are some limitations to the study, most obviously a relatively small sample size (though a decent sample was recruited to begin with - it is just that choosing those with reciprocal friendships means you have to cut down the sample available to analyse). But the strengths, including the observational methods, peer-nomination methods, and longitudinal design, all give us some confidence in the findings.

August 26, 2011

Are tired children more aggressive children?

O’Brien, L.M., Lucas, N.H., Felt, B.T., Hoban, T.F., Ruzicka, D.L., Jordan, R., Guire, K., & Chervin, R.D. (2011/in press). Aggressive behaviour, bullying, snoring, and sleepiness in schoolchildren. Sleep Medicine, XXX.

This is another paper which has not actually been published yet, but which has been accepted for publication. These authors note that a specific sleep related problem, called sleep-disordered breathing (SDB), might contribute toward children’s aggressive behaviour. SDB can range from simple snoring through to complete obstruction of the airway which causes problems sleeping and may include frequent awakenings. SDB has already been associated with other difficulties such as being hyperactive, inattentive and possibly aggression. However, the link with aggression has not been assessed in a general, standard school population and has been restricted to clinic-referred children.

341 young people from 2nd and 5th grades (around 7 and 10 years old) took part. Parents reported on their children’s snoring, sleepiness, inattentive/hyperactive behaviour, and bullying. Teachers also reported on problem inattentive/hyperactive or conduct disordered behaviour, and bullying.

The effects of age, gender, and free school lunch qualification (i.e. Socio-Economic Status) were controlled for. Then they tried to predict whether children did or did not (i) have conduct problems (ii) bully others.
  • (i) Conduct problems: SDB score predicted Conduct problems, even after controlling for stimulant medication. This seemed to be mainly due to reports of sleepiness rather than reports of snoring.
  • (ii) Bullying: SDB did not predict Bullying in a composite measure, but when broken down by parent and teacher rating, SDB did predict parent reports of bullying. This seemed to be mainly due to reports of sleepiness rather than reports of snoring. However, when use of stimulants was included this became the only significant predictor of parent identified bullying.
  • Discipline referrals were also investigated for 198 children, and 33 of those children had two or more referrals. This referral group had higher SDB scores and were reported to be sleepier than the non-referred group. This seemed again to be mainly due to reports of sleepiness rather than reports of snoring. 
The authors note that snoring is more commonly reported as a symptom characteristic of SDB, so sleepiness may reflect something other than biologically based difficulties. For example, the first thing that comes to mind for me is the possibility that parents are simply not putting their children to bed early enough. The authors cite research evidence supporting such a possibility.

The authors also argue that the effects of sleep difficulties might be seen primarily in how well the prefrontal cortex in the brain works – this area, at the front of the brain, is involved in our planning ability and our ability to stop our selves acting on impulse (known as “executive functions”) as well as being involved in emotional control. Encouraging a good sleep routine may therefore be an additional issue which anti-bullying efforts might want to integrate into their messages.

August 19, 2011

Getting away with it - how can young people be aggressive AND popular?

Kuryluk, A., Cohen, R., & Audley-Piotrowski, A. (in press). The role of respect in the relation of aggression to popularity. Social Development.

This paper has not actually been published yet – it has been accepted for publication but will not appear in print for some months yet, making it the most cutting edge review we’ve had so far on this blog!

These authors noted that a number of researchers had found that aggressive children tend to be thought of as popular by other children. However, at the same time other children usually say they do not like aggressive children. These authors sought to explain this apparent contradiction by looking to see whether respect makes a difference to how aggression impacts on both popularity and liking by peers.

Here, 234 boys and girls from 3rd to 6th grade (approx ages 8-12 years) took part. All were attending a University-affiliated school in America, and were predominantly middle-class. Liking was assessed by asking the children to nominate who in their class they liked most and liked least, while popularity was assessed by asking who the most and least popular students were. Children also reported on their classsmates’ overt (e.g. fighting) and relational (e.g. excluding them from a group) aggression. The students were also asked to indicate who in their class they respected.

Results indicated that higher levels of both relational and overt aggression were associated with higher levels of popularity, but only if a child was highly respected. When children were not respected, their level of aggression did not have any impact on their level of popularity. This was true for both boys and girls.

For the ‘Liking’ nominations, the story was slightly different. These nominations were completely unrelated to levels of aggression among boys. However, for girls and girls only, high levels of both relational and overt aggression were related to lower levels of Liking, but only when that girls was not respected. When girls were highly respected, their levels of aggression were unrelated to Liking.

I think this is an interesting study – it suggests that the social consequences of using aggression are influenced by the degree of respect which young people have amongst their peers. In effect, if you are respected then being aggressive is also likely to make others think you are popular. However, if you are a girl and not respected, then being aggressive is likely to lead to rejection from the peer group – other children will not like you. This wasn’t true for boys, who could be aggressive without it impacting on the degree to which others liked them.

August 10, 2011

Can best friends influence the link between a child's aggression and getting into trouble?

Fite, P.J., Rathert, J.L., Grassetti, S.N., Gaertner, A.E., Campion, S., Fite, J.L., & Vitulano, M.L. (2011). Longitudinal investigation of the link between proactive and reactive aggression and disciplinary actions in an after-school care program. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 33, 205-214.

Aggression can be viewed as either ‘reactive’ (a kind of hot-headed aggression, e.g. being knocked over and reacting by jumping up and hitting whoever knocked you over) or ‘proactive’ (a more calculated, premeditated type of aggression). The authors here were interested in the relationship between this and ‘disciplinary actions’, by which they mean notification of disciplinary problems to parents by after-school carers. They note that disciplinary action within school settings often seems to increase rather than decrease problem behaviour. No research has examined after school settings and disciplinary actions though. Finally, these researchers were interested to see whether how delinquent a young person’s best friend was also influenced aggression – and, crucially, whether the best friend’s delinquency level acted as a risk factor which combined with after-school disciplinary actions to increase aggression.

147 young people aged 5 to 13 years old took part, all of whom were attending an after-school program in the USA. Information was collected once at baseline, and then a second time two months later. Self-report questionnaires were completed by all children (with help where needed). Measures were taken of proactive and reactive aggression and best friend’s delinquency at the first data collection. At both the first and second data collection, disciplinary actions were taken from formal chart reviews – these included reports of things like fighting, swearing, property damage and stealing.

Taking into account the initial level of disciplinary actions, best friend delinquency was not a predictor of later level of disciplinary actions. Reactive aggression did predict later level of disciplinary actions, and this effect did not differ according to how delinquent a best friend was. However, proactive aggression was only a predictor of level of disciplinary actions when a child’s best friend had low levels of delinquency; when the best friend had high levels of delinquency, proactive aggression did not predict level of disciplinary actions.

These results indicate that it is important to identify reactive aggression and to help children to better deal with the impulses and thoughts associated with this. The authors suggest that proactively aggression children who are in groups of delinquent peers may get in less trouble because they can manipulate others into being troublesome. In contrast, proactively aggressive children with non-delinquent peers may end up being the troublesome child and hence end up getting into trouble.