Past research into adolescent popularity tells us that there are two types of popular teenager: the aggressive teen, who is more likely to be coercive or hostile in seeking popularity; and the prosocial teen, who is cooperative and more likely to be “nice”.
New research, published in the journal Child Development, identifies a third type known as the bistrategic teenager. As *Emily Reynolds explains, this teen gains status through a combination of aggression and kindness to become the most popular of them all. They use aggression when necessary but also smooth things over using prosocial strategies.
Senior researcher Amy C. Hartl and her team from Florida Atlantic University and the University of Montreal surveyed 568 students at three Montreal secondary schools, twice while they were in seventh grade (12 years old) and twice the next year. Participants had to nominate peers in their group who were popular, likeable, aggressive or prone to being bullied. Participants were also asked to rate themselves on social and emotional measures such as depression and loneliness.
The data on popularity, aggression and prosocial behaviour was then analysed to gain an understanding into the distinct kinds of popular teenagers that exist. Three groups emerged: the aggressive types (5% of the sample) and prosocial types (20%) already found, and the newly identified bistrategic teens (12%). The latter type were the most popular according to about a third of their classmates, who described them as being aggressive but also cooperative and kind.
Hartl and her team conclude that bistrategic teens are, by far, the most popular among their peers; they appear to balance their aggression with beneficent behaviour and gain the most reward for doing so.
This study reinforces what we already know from our own school days, that aggression can often be socially rewarded. Hartl says that teachers, parents and others who work with children need to be careful not to reward popularity gained through aggression and manipulation so that other students don’t mimic the unwanted behaviour. The study suggests that while popularity for prosocial teenagers can be desirable and good, for bistrategic or aggressive teens it can be problematic. Associated negative behaviours such as bullying, physical aggression or intimidation need to be identified to ensure that antisocial strategies are not carried into adulthood.
*A freelance journalist and author based in London, Emily Reynolds is also a Staff Writer with the BPS (British Psychological Society) Research Digest.