Relational aggression in adolescents; Exploring the associations with status goals, status stress, perspective taking and empathic concern within the framework of social goal theory
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Original versionRelational aggression in adolescents; Exploring the associations with status goals, status stress, perspective taking and empathic concern within the framework of social goal theory by Tove Flack. Stavanger : University of Stavanger, 2020 (PhD thesis UiS 395)
Background Relational aggression (RA) is a well-known phenomenon that involves behaviours that intentionally harm others’ interpersonal relationships (e.g., spreading negative gossip, purposefully excluding people, sending negative signals). This behaviour peaks during adolescence, which is worrisome because relational aggression can be very damaging to an individual’s well-being. Social goals, social stress and psychological resources such as empathic concern and perspective taking play an important role in determining how adolescents manage their social interactions with peers, and more research is needed to explore the associations between these variables and relational aggression in particular. Additionally, the phenomenon of relational inclusion (behaviours intentional aimed at including victimized peers) needs to be elucidated. Aims Not all peer interactions are positive in nature. Some adolescents experience injuries and exclusion from their peer group, while others establish considerable popularity. Hierarchies always emerge within the peer system, and in the process of fighting over popularity, some adolescents may be victimized. Recently, researchers have asked whether RA may be a functional yet negative strategy for pursuing popularity. To better understand this possibility, this thesis explores the association between a) status goals ( i.e., popularity status) and b) status stress (i.e., threats to one’s position within the peer group) and RA to determine whether there is any basis for the theory that RA is used to gain and maintain status within the peer context. Not only goals and stress but also psychological resources determine how adolescents interact within the peer group. Psychological resources such as empathic concern and perspective taking may help create prosocial coping strategies. Another aim of this thesis was therefore to explore the role of a) perspective-taking and b) empathic concern towards victims of RA in explaining RA and RI. Methods This thesis comprises three sub-studies (described in Paper 1, Paper 2, and Paper 3) based on cross-sectional data. The target sample consisted of 379 eighth-grade students (average age = 14 years; 200 girls and 179 boys) from 15 classes across three secondary schools in the Stavanger area of Norway. Both self- and peer reports were used to assess the dependent variables, RA and RI. Confirmatory factor analysis (CFA) was used to test all constructs used in this thesis. Structural equation modelling (SEM) was used to test the associations of interest. Study 1 investigated the construct validity of the peer relational stress scale (PRS) that was developed for the present study, using CFA, and tested its measurement invariance across two randomly selected subsamples and across gender. Study 2 used the status stress sub-scale from the PRS scale to investigate the association between status stress and relationally aggressive behaviour. Additionally, the association between status goals and RA was explored, as was the mediating effect of status stress on the association between status goals and RA. Study 3 examined the role of a) empathic concern for victims of relational aggression (ECV) and b) perspective taking in explaining variance in self- and peer-reported relational aggression among adolescents. The extent to which ECV influences the associations of perspective taking with a) RA and b) RI was also explored. Results The results of study 1 showed that affiliation-related and status-related stress are two distinct, though correlated, dimensions of stress in the peer context. The results of study 2 indicated that the big majority of the participants desire status goals and that experiences of status stress and RA are common. Additionally status goals were associated with both self- and peer-reported RA. Status stress contributed significantly but not very strongly to the variation in self-reported RA but not in peer-reported RA. Therefore, the results must be interpreted with caution. Status stress did not mediate the association between status goals and RA. Although nothing can be said regarding cause and effect in this study, the positive association between status goals and RA, and the positive association seen between status stress and RA in self-reported data, do give some support to the theoretical model in this thesis assuming that RA is a strategy to gain and maintain status in the peer context. The results of study 3 showed that ECV was negatively associated with RA but did not explain the variance in RI among adolescents to a notable extent. Perspective taking was positively associated with RA and RI in self-reported data but not in peer-reported data. ECV moderated the relationship of perspective taking with RI and RA in the self-reported data but not in the peer-reported data. The theory that ECV may prevent RA from occurring gained some support as ECV correlated negative to RA in both self-and peer report. Additionally, self-reports indicated that perspective taking skills were associated with both RA and RI. These findings may suggest that the ability to take the victim’s perspective has the potential for motivating relationally inclusive behaviour and preventing RA among adolescents who also have a certain level of ECV. However, peer reports did not support these findings, and therefore, the result must be interpreted with caution. Implications for further research and practice Based on the findings of this thesis, initiative could be taken to increase the value of friendship goals and decrease the value of status goals among adolescents, and research could be initiated to evaluate the effect of such initiatives. If more adolescents learn to value affiliation over status goals, status stress among peers might decrease, leading to a reduction in the use of relationally aggressive strategies to pursue status goals. Initiatives to increase adolescents’ concern for victims of RA could also be introduced in schools. Especially popular and relationally aggressive adolescents could be given the opportunity to participate in initiatives aimed at increasing empathic concern for others. In addition, initiatives could be developed to establish social anti-bullying norms in the peer context. The results of this thesis was discussed in relation to relevant research and theory about stress, goals and aggression. The results, showing a positive association between status goals and self-reported status stress gave some support to the theory that RA may be a goal-directed strategy aimed at gaining status and addressing status stress. However, the research design of this thesis cannot verify the assumption of the theoretical model. In future research, it may be important to investigate RA within the framework of goals, stress and coping using a longitudinal design. In a social goal model exploring RA as a strategy for gaining and maintaining status, emotional and cognitive factors such as perspective taking and ECV should also be included. Steps could be taken to identify different subgroups within the social hierarchy when studying the relationships between a) status goals, b) status stress, c) perspective taking and d) ECV and RA and RI. The possibility that adolescents in different positions and roles within the hierarchy may have different personal characteristics, different reasoning skills and different coping strategies for gaining and maintaining status and reducing status stress could be explored.
Has partsPaper 1: Flack, T., Salmivalli, C., & Idsoe, T. (2011). Peer relations as a source of stress? Assessing affiliation- and status-related stress among adolescents. European Journal of Developmental Psychology, 8, 473- 489. This paper is not included in Brage for copyright reasons.
Paper 2: Flack, T. (2017). Relational aggressive behaviour: the contributions of status stress and status goals. Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties,127-14 http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13632752.2016.1255428. This paper is not included in Brage for copyright reasons.
Paper 3: Flack, T. (under submission). Relational aggression and relational inclusion in adolescents: The contributions of empathic concern for victims of relational aggression and perspective-taking. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13632752.2020.1790798. This paper is not included in Brage for copyright reasons.