HIGHLY AGGRESSIVE BOYS CAN BE AMONG THE MOST POPULAR
by Philip C. Rodkin, Ph.D., Thomas W. Farmer, Ph.D.,
Ruth Pearl, Ph.D. & Richard Van Acker, Ph.D.
Aggressive, antisocial behavior as an adult doesn't win you many friends,
but the same behavior in elementary school can make you one of the most
popular kids in school. That's one finding from a new study of 452 fourth-through-sixth-grade
boys which shows that tough, antisocial boys were not only viewed as
popular and antisocial by their peers but also by their teachers and
themselves. The study appears in the January issue of Developmental
Psychology, a journal published by the American Psychological Association
The findings of the study are important because they show how children are
rewarded with popularity for being antisocial. Psychologist Philip C.
Rodkin, Ph.D., of Duke University, the study's lead author, along with
co-authors Thomas W. Farmer, Ph.D., of the University of North Carolina at
Chapel Hill and Ruth Pearl, Ph.D., and Richard Van Acker, Ph.D., of the
University of Illinois at Chicago, say the findings are also important
because "if some popular children are also antisocial, they may be
overlooked in programs (focused mainly on unpopular children) that assist
children toward positive developmental outcomes, and they also may have a
large and negative influence on their peers."
The study involved boys from 59 classrooms from schools in Chicago and
North Carolina. The schools involved included inner-city, suburban and
rural schools. The study found that there were similarities and differences
in the typical behavioral profiles of popular African American and European
American boys. Most popular boys in both ethnic groups were model children
- athletic, cooperative, studious and sociable. However, about a third of
very popular children were extremely antisocial. These boys tended to
argue, be disruptive, get into trouble and start fights. African American
boys in mostly White classrooms were particularly likely to be antisocial
and very popular. This finding, according to the authors, adds to previous
research findings that some of the characteristics associated with
popularity and status may reflect the values of particular peer cultures.
An alternative interpretation is that aggression may be functional for
African American children who are socialized in low-income and higher-risk
Dr. Rodkin says the study raises questions of whether high popularity
buffers antisocial boys from future adjustment difficulties. For instance,
popular antisocial boys may escape many of the risk factors predicted by
peer rejection. Conversely, popular antisocial children might be
particularly resistant to making necessary lifestyle changes in adolescence
if their oppositional behavior has generally been associated with social
status and prestige. "These boys may internalize the idea that aggression,
popularity and control naturally go together, and they may not hesitate to
use physical aggression as a social strategy because it has always worked in
the past, "Dr. Rodkin said. "Obviously, there will come a point in these
boys' lives when this turns from an adaptive and fun to a lonely and
potentially dangerous characteristic."
Although many popular antisocial boys may become lifelong bullies, Dr.
Rodkin notes that "society effectively says that some kinds of aggression
and rebelliousness are legitimate to express and are culturally rewarded,
and some antisocial boys in our study may go this route." For instance,
many political leaders, CEOs and supervisors use aggression in a nonviolent
way (verbal aggression, manipulation, etc.) to get what they want. "They
may not be loved, but they are powerful and have status, prestige and
social/professional connections," he adds.
This study only looked at popularity as it applies to boys, but the authors
also have evidence that there are substantial gender differences for
popularity. Previous studies have shown that even when educated in the same
classrooms, preadolescent boys and girls are involved in segregated cultures
that can best be described as "separate worlds." They add that future
research examining the differences between popular children should consider
Reference: "Heterogeneity of Popular Boys: Antisocial and Prosocial
Configurations," Philip C. Rodkin, Ph.D., Thomas W. Farmer,
Ph.D., Ruth Pearl, Ph.D., and
Richard Van Acker, Ph.D.Developmental
Psychology, Vol. 36, No. 1.
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