It's not just a stereotype: Popular teens really are meaner than their peers--at least according to a study in the May issue of Developmental Psychology (Vol. 40, No. 3).
Amanda Rose, PhD, and her colleagues at the University of Missouri-Columbia, found that seventh- and ninth-graders perceived their relationally aggressive classmates to be more popular than meeker students.
But while relational aggression, such as excluding other people or spreading rumors, correlated with popularity, the link between overt aggression, such as verbal insults or physical threats, and popularity was not as strong. (Researchers consider overt and relational aggression to be separate but related traits--people who are more overtly aggressive, for example, are likely to be more relationally aggressive as well.)
Psychologists have been interested in the link between aggression and popularity for decades, Rose says. Early research indicated that aggressive children faced social rejection, but more recent studies have suggested the opposite--that aggression is linked with being perceived as "popular." The difference, Rose explains, lies in researchers' different definitions of popularity. Psychologists used to simply ask students how much they liked other classmates. More recently, they also ask students which of their classmates are "popular"--and the two measures don't necessarily match up.
"The irony, or paradox, is that kids still want to be popular, even though it's not linked to being well-liked," Rose says.
To determine whether the connection between aggression and popularity may be due to overt aggression, relational aggression or both, Rose and her team surveyed more than 600 third-, fifth-, seventh- and ninth-graders about their schoolmates' aggressive behaviors and popularity. They first found that both overt and relational aggression were related to popularity among the seventh- and ninth-graders. But when they later controlled for relational aggression, the link between overt aggression and popularity disappeared. In contrast, when they controlled for overt aggression, relational aggression still predicted popularity.
Next, the researchers explored whether the teens were using relational aggression in a calculated way to increase their popularity over time--say, by snubbing an unpopular classmate--or whether popular teens became more aggressive over time because their schoolmates, bowing to their social power, allowed them to do so.
To answer this, the researchers surveyed a different group of more than 1,000 students in the fall of the school year and again six months later to see whether initial relational aggression predicted increased popularity over time. For girls it did, but for boys it didn't. Rose thinks this may be because relational aggression is not seen as normal for older boys, so it's less likely to increase their popularity. But girls, she posits, could use relational aggression to manage their social worlds.
Further studies, Rose says, should look into whether intervening to change popular aggressors' behavior is necessary or even possible. She explains: "It's one thing to say that we should intervene, and another to be able to actually do so--given that this behavior may be getting youth what they want, which is to be popular."