Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Can You Make Teens Less Aggressive?

Teens who learn that behavior can change react less aggressively to others.

Over the past several years, I got to experience high school again through the eyes of my kids.  Though I have enjoyed going to band concerts and choir concerts and plays, I am glad that I am beyond my high school years.  There is a lot of aggression in high school.  Kids can be flat-out mean to each other.  Some of it is just good-natured fun, as kids test out their ability to hurl verbal insults.  But, some of it is really nasty. 

 There are always a few kids who find themselves to be the object of a lot of teasing and bullying.  Those kids can suffer through their time in high school.  They experience symptoms of depression.  They can also lash out at the people who torment them, acting aggressively toward them.

 Is there any way to break this cycle of aggression?

 A fascinating paper by David Yeager, Kali Trzewniewski, and Carol Dweck in the May/June, 2013 issue of Child Development explored this question. 

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 I have written about Carol Dweck’s research in this blog before.  She and her colleagues argue that people tend to think about psychological traits in one of two ways. Sometimes they adopt an entity mindset, in which they believe that the trait is a permanent fixture of someone’s psychology.  Sometimes they adopt an incremental mindset, in which they believe that traits change over time. 

 Most psychological traits can change, and so an incremental mindset is probably closer to the truth.  Yet, many children and adults adopt an entity mindset for all kinds of traits including intelligence, trustworthiness, and aggression.

 To make kids less aggressive, you might think that the best strategy is to teach them skills for coping with disappointments and conflicts with other kids.  Perhaps they could use those skills to think differently about their behavior. 

 If you have spent any time recently with teenagers, though, you know that they resist almost any attempt to tell them what to do.  So, it may not be that effective to just give teens strategies to deal with conflicts.  Instead, if you give them information about how personality traits like being aggressive can change over time, you may help them to deal more effectively with other people.

 In their study, about 250 students from a city high school participated in this study.  Some students were in a control condition whose behavior was measured without any intervention.  Other students participated in a 3-week program teaching them coping skills.  They learned about things like hot to deal with social rejection and how to focus on positive aspects of their life.  A third group participated in a 3-week program teaching them about the incremental mindset.  They learned that personality traits can change over time, because people’s brains are always changing.  They also learned about the many factors that affect people’s behavior and how changes in motivations can change their behavior. 

 Several weeks after the intervention, participants were given the chance to display aggressive and pro-social behavior.  They played a computer game called “Cyberball.”  In this game, three players seated in different rooms play a game in which they pass a ball around.  The other players are actually controlled by the computer.  After the first few passes, the two other players pass the ball only to each other.  This game has been shown to make people feel excluded.

 After playing this game, participants did a taste testing activity in which they prepared food for one of the people they were supposed to have played Cyberball with.  The participant was given information about the other person including the fact that the person does not like spicy food.  The participant was given the chance to put hot sauce on the food, and they could put on as much hot sauce as they wanted.  The idea is that the more hot sauce they put on, the more aggressive they are being toward this person who had just excluded them from a game. 

 Before the food was “delivered” to the other person, the participant also had a chance to write a note to accompany the food.  This note allowed participants to give either prosocial messages (“I didn’t add much hot sauce, because I know you don’t like it”) or antisocial messages (“I put a lot of hot sauce on, because you were mean to me.”)

 Finally, a few months after the intervention, teachers were given the chance to identify students whose behavior had changed positively over the last few months of the year.  These students were also less likely to be absent or tardy from school in the months after the intervention. 

 Overall, participants given the incremental theory training put less hot sauce on the food after the game of Cyberball (so they were less aggressive toward others) than those who got the coping skills training or those in the control group.  The participants given the incremental theory training also wrote more positive messages in their note than those in the other groups.  At the follow-up later, the participants in the incremental theory group were also more likely to be identified by teachers as improving their behavior than those in the other groups.

 However, this training had a specific benefit.  The students who were most likely to show improvements in their behavior were the ones who were often the victims of aggression, teasing, and bullying by other students.  This training was particularly effective at helping victims of bullying to realize that the people around them can change, and so they did not need to lash out at these people.

 This study adds to the benefits of thinking about psychological traits as being malleable rather than fixed.  The more that you believe that your own behavior and other people’s behavior can change, the more willing you are to deal positively with interpersonal problems and to work harder to improve yourself. 

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 Check out my books Smart Thinking and Habits of Leadership

Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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