The Most Popular Teens Gain Status Through A Combination Of Aggression And Kindness

four teenage girls standing in front of concrete wall

By Emily Reynolds

For many teenagers, being popular is the ultimate form of success. But how to get there is not always so clear. Past research has identified two types of popular teens: the aggressive and the prosocial. Aggressively popular teens are more likely to be coercive or hostile whilst seeking popularity; the prosocial are co-operative and more likely to be stereotypically “nice”.

But in new research from Florida Atlantic University and the University of Montreal, published in Child Development, a third group has emerged: the “bistrategic” teen. This group is neither stereotypically aggressive nor stereotypically nice: instead, they walk the line, using aggression when needed but also being able to smooth things over with strategies usually seen in a more prosocial teen. And this seems to be such a successful tactic that these teens are the most popular of the lot.

Researchers collected survey data from 568 students at three secondary schools in Montreal, twice while they were in the 7th grade (around 12 years old) and twice in the 8th grade. In some of these surveys, participants were asked to nominate members of their peer group who were particularly popular, likeable, aggressive or prone to being bullied, amongst other measures. Other surveys involved participants rating themselves on social and emotional measures like depression and loneliness.

The team then used the data on popularity, aggression, and prosocial behavior in a statistical model to understand what distinct kinds of popular teens exist. Three groups emerged: the aggressive and prosocial types identified by previous research, and the newly discovered bistrategic teen, consisting of teens who were often nominated by their peers as being aggressive but also as being co-operative and kind. This group was neither the largest nor the most rare: 12% of the sample was classified as bistrategic, compared to 20% prosocial and 5% aggressive. But it was the most popular, with its members identified as popular by around a third of classmates.

“These teens are, by far, the most popular among their peers,” senior author Amy C. Hartl says over email. “They appear to balance their aggression with beneficent behaviour and gain the most reward for doing so.”

Hartl and her team are now interested in looking at teens who aren’t popular. “Our study helps define what makes adolescents popular, but it doesn’t distinguish between those who aren’t popular from those who are,” she says. “Most adolescents fall into a ‘typical’ group, which is neither popular nor unpopular, largely because particular effort isn’t placed into status-attaining behaviours.” Those who try to gain status and fail, she also notes, may become even more unpopular than they were to  begin with.

There’s lots to be learned for teachers, parents and others who work with children, too. The study demonstrates what many of us already know from our own school days: aggression can often be socially rewarded. Hartl believes that parents and teachers should work cooperatively to remove this social reward. “Teachers need to be careful not to reward popularity gained through aggression and manipulation so that other students don’t mimic the unwanted behaviour,” she says.

What the study couldn’t answer is whether popularity is good or bad, instead suggesting that it’s context dependent. For prosocial teens, popularity can often be just as good as it’s cracked up to be. But for bistrategic or aggressive teens, it may be a double-edged sword, accompanied by problematic behaviours like bullying, physical aggression or intimidation. Identifying these behaviours in teens is key to ensuring that aggressive or antisocial strategies are not taken with them into adulthood.

3 thoughts on “The Most Popular Teens Gain Status Through A Combination Of Aggression And Kindness”

  1. As a 16 year old in a state school in the UK, I know that this is partally the case. In my experience, popular teens use kindness to intimidate. They will choose one particularly vulnerable person and single them out to be extremely kind to. These people don’t know how to deal with this sudden surge in ‘popularity’ and so sink further. Also note that it isn’t just one bully who latches onto one person, it’s the whole lot of bullies.

    For example, when the ‘victim’ is contribiting in class and stumbels over the words or doesn’t know what to say, the whole grour will laugh and say: “Oh I love you Joe Bloggs, you’re just so funny!” When this is a legitimate problem they struggle with. Also , as soon as they leave, they begin being rude about them. The whole thing makes the ‘victim’ so uncomfortable that they stay where they are in the heirarchy.

    (Sorry that this is so long, I just thought I should add my school’s experience)

      1. Yes negheg, thanks for adding your comment! That is quite interesting. It’s kind of passive-aggressive.

        Thinking about it from the group’s point of view, there is a tension about the moment of the stumbling that they seek to relieve. The natural empathy of feeling bad for another person is uncomfortable, but there is no outlet for the tension. Showing sincere concern to help the stumbler feel better would expose that person to the ridicule given to those in the out-group. So a solution is to make it into a joke which appears friendly, but is not necessarily. I suppose the real harm occurs when the “love” is taken back later.

        I wonder if this is as bad as overt aggression (mocking), or as a more sophisticated response, is a step in the right direction. I think I would have preferred it to the outright bullying and ridicule I received in school 50 years ago. It grows some degree of acceptance for the object, even if it forces that person into a clowning role to retain it.

        Congrats on reading this research column at your age! Perhaps you will enter the field of psychology and contribute to it. I think we would be fortunate to have you.

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