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Prosocial and aggressive behaviours and their influence on adolescent popularity

May 21, 2013

In her study of “the relationships between two measures of social status (i.e., perceived popularity and social dominance) and early adolescents’ experiences within their cliques,” (407-408) Leanna M. Closson writes:

Traditionally, developmental researchers have conceptualized high-status youths as liked, sociable, and nonaggressive and low-status youths as disliked, unsociable, and aggressive or withdrawn (Newcomb, Bukowski, & Pattee, 1993). However, recent work has begun to show that behavioral characteristics and outcomes associated with social status are not as clearcut as previously thought. For example, when considering measures of social status based in sociology (i.e., perceived popularity) and ethology [-p.407] (i.e., social dominance), high status is often associated with aggressive behavior (Hawley, 2003; Prinstein & Cillessen, 2003; Rodkin, Farmer, Pearl, & Van Acker, 2000). In fact, researchers have argued that some aggression may be normative and beneficial to social adjustment (Hawley, 2003; Little, Brauner, Jones, Nock, & Hawley, 2003), especially if aggression is carefully balanced by the use of prosocial behavior (Hawley, 2003). Thus far, the social behaviors and experiences of such high-status children and adolescents have been quantitatively studied within the larger peer group context (e.g., Hawley, 2003; Lease, Kennedy, & Axelrod, 2002; Parkhurst & Hopmeyer, 1998; Prinstein & Cillessen, 2003; Rodkin et al., 2000; Savin-Williams, 1979) and, less often, within dyadic friendships (Hawley, Little, & Card, 2007).” (pp.406-407)

“Except for a few ethnographic studies (Adler & Adler, 1998; Merten, 1997), researchers have yet to explore associations between status and behavior used within friendship cliques. Unlike larger peer groups such as classmates or grademates at school, cliques are comprised of youths who voluntarily and frequently associate with one another and identify one another as friends (Rubin, Bukowski, & Parker, 1998). By late childhood/early adolescence, nearly all youths report being members of cliques (Rubin et al., 1998; Thompson, O’Neill Grace, & Cohen, 2001). Since the prevalence and social influence of cliques has been reported to peak during early adolescence (Thompson et al., 2001), the associations between social status and the dynamics within cliques may be particularly important to study at this stage of development.
Social status is a central aspect of daily life for early adolescents, as inclusion and acceptance by peers become strongly desired (Merten, 2004). During this time, social status exists within the larger peer network (e.g., classroom or grade) as well as within smaller social groups (e.g., cliques) and can reflect one’s own social reputation or one’s reputation based on with whom one affiliates (Cairns, Perrin, & Cairns, 1985). Both individuals within cliques and cliques within the larger peer network may be organized hierarchically (Adler & Adler, 1998).” (p.407)

Across Grades 4–10, perceived popularity has been positively associated with the use of prosocial behavior toward peers (Gorman et al., 2002; LaFontana & Cillessen, 2002; Rodkin et al., 2000). In comparison, positive associations between perceived popularity and both overt and relational forms of aggression toward peers have been most commonly reported across Grades 6–10 (LaFontana & Cillessen, 2002; Prinstein & Cillessen, 2003; Rose, Swenson, & Waller, 2004). It has been argued that the ability to maintain a position of high social status within the peer group using aggressive means requires keen interpersonal skills that develop with age (Rose, Swenson, & Waller, 2004). Furthermore, perceived popular youths are often described by peers as cool, nice, and funny yet also conceited, exclusionary, and mean (Adler & Adler, 1998; Closson, 2009; Eder, Evans, & Parker, 1995). Given their mixed profile, it is not surprising that perceived popular early adolescents [-p.409] are not necessarily well liked by all peers (Farmer, Estell, Bishop, O’Neal, & Cairns, 2003; Parkhurst & Hopmeyer, 1998). Certain peers may admire their prosocial characteristics, whereas others may resent their social power and disapprove of their aggressiveness.” (pp.408-409)

Research findings in regard to gender differences in associations between peer-directed aggression and perceived popularity have been mixed. Using an early adolescent sample, one study demonstrated that overt aggression was more strongly linked with perceived popularity for boys than for girls (Parkhurst & Hopmeyer, 1998). Other studies have indicated that overt and relational aggression may be positively associated with perceived popularity for both boys and girls; however, the association involving relational aggression may be stronger for girls than for boys in early adolescence….” (p.409)

“findings suggest that youths in perceived average cliques may be the least aggressive individuals in the peer group.” (p.409)

In the section titled ‘Social Dominance’, Closson goes on to explain:
Not only may a status hierarchy exist between cliques within the larger peer network, but a status hierarchy between individuals within cliques may also be present (Adler & Adler, 1998). According to Adler and Adler, at the top [-p.410] of the hierarchy within cliques are leaders followed by those who are second tier and finally those who are followers. During preadolescence and early adolescence, the leaders within popular cliques have been found to use aggression toward socially threatening subordinate clique members to secure their own dominant position within the clique (Adler & Adler, 1998; Merten, 1997). The current study sought to determine whether these ethnographic findings can be replicated through quantitative measures and assess whether such behavior occurs within lower status cliques.” (pp.409-410)

Through competition, socially dominant individuals gain greater access than others to social resources (e.g., being deemed the leader of the group) or material resources (e.g., the preferred spot in the lunch cafeteria) that are highly desired by group members (Hawley, 1999). Relative to their subordinate peers, socially dominant youths have been characterized as more influential, daring, physically attractive, and socially appropriate; thus, they are often perceived as attractive social partners and are afforded high status (Hawley, 1999; Savin-Williams, 1979; Savin-Williams & Freedman, 1977).
The traditional view of social dominance suggests that dominant individuals use aggressive strategies to attain their goals. However, Hawley (1999) proposed that social dominance may be obtained by acquiring resources, regardless of the means by which they are attained. Hawley’s resource control theory suggests that one’s ability to compete for and control social or material resources determines each group member’s status within the dominance hierarchy. According to Hawley and her colleagues (e.g., Hawley, 2003; Hawley et al., 2007; Hawley, Little, & Pasupathi, 2002), dominant children and adolescents tend to use one of three strategies of resource control: prosocial (e.g., reciprocity, cooperation, persuasion, and helping behaviors), coercive (e.g., aggression, manipulation, deception, insults, and threats), or bistrategic (i.e., the use of either prosocial or coercive strategies depending on what would bring the most success given the context of the situation).” (p.410)

During late childhood and early adolescence, prosocial dominance is associated with positive social characteristics and outcomes (e.g., perceived as popular, liked by peers, agreeable, conscientious, sensitive to social cues, socially connected, and positive affect) (Hawley, 2003; Hawley et al., 2002). Comparatively, coercive dominance is associated with aggression, [-p.411] hostility, willingness to cheat, negative affect, and loneliness (Hawley, 2003; Hawley et al., 2002). Bistrategic dominants are socially competent, sharing characteristics and outcomes of prosocial dominants (e.g., perceived as popular, reasonably liked by peers, agreeable, conscientious, socially skilled, and socially integrated) as well as coercive dominants (e.g., high levels of hostility, loneliness, cheating, and aggression) (Hawley, 2003; Hawley et al., 2002). Bistrategic individuals report the highest need for recognition and highest influence over their peers (Hawley et al., 2002).” (pp.410-411)

Closson qualifies this discussion with the observation that “dominance strategies may differ depending on the social context.” (p.411)

Some research suggests that there may be gender differences in the peer-directed social behaviors of socially dominant early adolescents. For instance, in a study with youths at a summer camp, Savin-Williams (1979) found that verbal ridicule (i.e., verbal and relational aggression) was the most frequent expression of social dominance for both boys and girls. However, socially dominant boys used more physical aggression, whereas socially dominant girls tended to use more prosocial strategies. Similarly, Hawley (2003) found that more boys than girls used coercive dominance strategies and that more girls than boys used prosocial dominance strategies, whereas boys and girls were equally likely to be bistrategic. Although previous research suggests that there may be gender differences in dominance strategies used within the larger peer group, it is presently unknown whether these gender differences exist within the context of a friendship clique.” (p.411)

Discussing her results, Closson observes: “Interestingly, individuals in perceived unpopular cliques used more instrumental overt aggression toward the friends in their clique than did members of perceived average cliques. Adler and Adler (1998) have found ethnographic evidence suggesting that low-status youths are often discontented with their social position in the peer group. If this is the case, the present findings may reflect their desire to increase their status; however, instrumental overt aggression may not prove as effective a method as using relational or reputational forms of instrumental aggression (Prinstein & Cillessen, 2003). Although popular youths may use aggression to their advantage, unpopular youths may not possess the savoir faire required to produce their desired effect (Adler & Adler, 1998), as evidenced by their lower levels of prosocial behavior toward clique members. This inability to balance aggression with prosocial behavior may prevent unpopular adolescents from ascending the hierarchy and contributes to the negative perceptions held by their friends and peers. Although perceived unpopular cliques consisted of reciprocated friendships, Adler and Adler (1998) have suggested that they may be forced relationships based on availability since these children tend to be excluded by the larger peer group. Therefore, individuals in perceived unpopular cliques may not have strong positive feelings for one another because their affiliation may be motivated by a lack of an alternative source of friendship.” (p.429)

The present results demonstrate that instrumental aggression may be a useful tool in maintaining a dominant position within friendship cliques as well.” (p.431)

Assessing the limitations of her study, Closson acknowledges that “Although every effort was made to achieve a high participation rate, a 100% participation rate was not obtained. Thus, there may have been a few [-p.432] members of each clique who were not accounted for.” (pp.431-432)

Ref: Leanna M. Closson (2009) Aggressive and Prosocial Behaviors within Early Adolescent Friendship Cliques: What’s Status Got to Do with It? Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, Volume 55, Number 4, October 2009, pp.406-435 (DOI: 10.1353/mpq.0.0035)

“This study involved an examination of the role of perceived popularity and social dominance in the social behaviors used within early adolescents’ (N = 387) friendship cliques. A status hierarchy between cliques within each grade (based on peer-rated perceived popularity) and a status hierarchy between individuals within each clique (based on friend-rated social dominance) were delineated. Results revealed that adolescents’ within-clique dominance rank and their clique’s collective perceived popularity status were independently related to their social behaviors used within their cliques and their likability by friends and peers. Levels of aggression were highest within perceived popular cliques and perceived unpopular cliques, whereas levels of prosocial behavior and friend/peer likability were lowest in perceived unpopular cliques. Findings also indicated that aggression toward clique members was associated with social dominance within the clique. However, dominant adolescents using both aggressive and prosocial behaviors within their cliques may be afforded the most social rewards.”

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