|Popular girls showed more skilful leadership than others, popular boys showed less.|
In classrooms around the world, there’s an unwritten hierarchy, with most of the kids knowing each other’s standing in terms of popularity. Past psychology research has looked into the ways that children and teens attain this status, including the ability to influence their peers, either in skilful, sensitive ways or through coercion and manipulation. A new study published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology takes a different approach by looking at how popular children, aged 11, behave when they participate in a one-on-one cooperative task with a randomly chosen classmate. Away from the eyes of the rest of the class, will they be rude and pushy, or show tact and leadership?
Tessa Lansu and Antonius Cillessen recruited 218 eleven-year-old girls and boys from nine schools in middle-class communities to complete a cooperative task in same-sex pairs. The task required each pair of children to sit at a computer together and fill out a form about planning a classroom party, including making decisions about the time and date, and what snacks would be on offer. A webcam recorded the discussions which took about ten minutes. Before this, all the children had answered questions about who was the most and least popular child in their class. The researchers used these ratings to ascertain each child’s overall popularity.
Three judges coded the videos of the interactions for various behaviours, including skilful leadership (essentially when one child got the other one to follow their lead, but in a flexible way that took account of the other child’s feelings and goals), overall influence, coercive or bossy behaviour and submissive behaviour.
Perhaps the most striking finding was the sex difference that emerged: the more popular girls were with their class as a whole, the more skilful leadership they showed in the cooperative task with a single class-mate. By contrast, boys’ class popularity was associated with their showing less skilful leadership in the task. Overall, peer popularity was a more significant factor in the girls’ interactions than the boys, also being associated with their having more influence and showing less submissive behaviour.
The researchers also looked at how a child’s behaviour in the task was related to the popularity of their partner. Both girls and boys adopted a low profile when they were collaborating with a popular partner: they tended to avoid using coercion and any negative behaviour, suggesting they did not want to upset their popular classmate. “Interaction partners of high-status adolescents may keep a low profile because they are aware of the capabilities of the high-status influential peer,” the researchers said. These results could also be interpreted the other way around, though, as showing that children were happier to bully and coerce classmates who were unpopular in class.
This is a very new area of study and there were some issues with the methods, including the fact the people coding the videos of the interactions didn’t always agree on the nature of the behaviours on display. Also, the data only speak to the relevance of class popularity to behaviour in same-sex partnerships, and to behaviour in a cooperative task, as opposed to a competitive task or other one-on-one situation. Still, these are fascinating results ripe for follow-up. For example, can the observed sex differences be explained by possible differences in the ways girls and boys attain popularity: boys using group-level leadership, girls juggling numerous one-on-one relationships?
There could be practical insights here too. “If a teacher wants to promote assertiveness and leadership in a girl, having her work with a highly popular peer might not be the best option because the popular peer’s reputation or behaviour could evoke submissive behaviour in the girl,” the researchers said. “Instead, the teacher could pair her with an average-status peer, or maybe explicitly assign a more submissive role to the peer with whom she would be interacting, in order to promote the girl’s assertiveness.”
Lansu, T., & Cillessen, A. (2015). Associations of group level popularity with observed behavior and influence in a dyadic context Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 140, 92-104 DOI: 10.1016/j.jecp.2015.06.016
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