Popular kids in school more likely to be disruptive and aggressive, study shows

BOCA RATON, Fla. — It’s cool to be a fool in school, apparently. Research from Florida Atlantic University shows that aggressive, disruptive adolescents often end up becoming quite popular among their peers.

Importantly, researchers explain that being popular and having friends aren’t one in the same. Popular means that everyone knows you, but they may not necessarily consider you a buddy. Study authors posit that certain children prefer popularity over lots of friends. Why? Being popular is considered a major status symbol for an adolescent or teen. While it is certainly true that many popular children are fun and outgoing, others are troublemakers.

The team at FAU performed a longitudinal study to test their hypothesis that disruptive children often start conflicts with their fellow classmates to strengthen their social standing and become more popular. The subsequent results showed that higher initial levels of peer-reported aggression and disruptiveness were indeed associated with an increase in peer-reported popularity during the semester. This was especially true for kids reporting frequent arguments with peers.

Aggression, in most cases, occurs in the heat of the moment during a conflict of some kind. Researchers theorize that many kids just want to avoid confrontation, or perhaps even physical harm. In such cases they usually back down when confronted by an aggressive peer. These actions “provide visible evidence of dominance and promotes short-term gains in popularity” for the aggressor, the authors explain.

“Although we think it unlikely that contentiousness alone is a foundation for popularity, it may signal to peers a willingness to deploy discord to achieve ends,” says Brett Laursen, Ph.D., senior author and a professor of psychology in FAU’s Charles E. Schmidt College of Science, in a statement.. “Because conflict contains the potential for escalation, it amplifies dangers that can arise when aggressive and disruptive children are crossed. Aggressive children who are frequently in conflict need not always resort to coercion; the mere prospect of unpleasant behavior may persuade others to submit.”

A diverse collection of students living in Florida (ages 8-12) took part in this study. All children attended a primary school whose student population mirrored the ethnicity and socioeconomic status profiles of public school students across the entire state. “A similar process appears to work for disruptive children, although less pronounced. Submission in response to a disagreement with a disruptive child avoids irritating classmates who are aware of the risks of antagonizing someone who is willing to unsettle the group to get their way,” Dr. Laursen adds.

While researchers don’t think conflict is enough by itself to boost up one’s overall social status, they do believe it can be used as an effective way of reinforcing certain aspects of popularity.

“We do not claim that conflicts used in this manner are a healthy avenue to well-being. The consequences of conflict depend on the context, the aims and the ways in which it is managed,” Dr. Laursen concludes. “We do claim, however, that disagreement can be an efficient social strategy that leverages the implicit threat of coercion into dominance, bolstering popularity through reminders rather than actual displays of aggression and disruption.”

The study is published in Personality and Individual Differences.

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