The Grapevine

Children Primed To See Aggression In Others Are More Likely To Be Aggressive In Return

Violence
Kids who see a potential threat at every turn are more likely to strike back in anger. Photo Courtesy of Shutterstock

The findings of a new study released this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences may modify a familiar axiom about aggression: it’s not just violence that begets violence, it’s the expectation of violence.

In an extensive, four-year long study of 1,299 children across nine different countries, the authors of the study found that when a child perceives an act to be hostile towards them, they’re overwhelmingly more likely to respond aggressively themselves than when it’s perceived as neutral or kind.

“Our study identifies a major psychological process that leads a child to commit violence,” said lead author Dr. Kenneth A. Dodge, director of the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University, in a statement .

The children in the study’s sample were 8 years old when first recruited, and followed up with annually. They hailed from Japan, the United States, Thailand, and Italy, among others, and belonged to one of twelve distinct cultural groups.

Every year of the study, their level of aggression was measured via interviews with the child and their mother, and on the third year, they were presented with ten different hypothetical situations involving an “ambiguous provocation” directed at them by someone. For each situation they were told to guess whether the hypothetical someone intended them harm or not, and then asked to imagine how they’d respond to them.  

Each group of children was more likely to respond with their own hostility when they saw the act as harmful; on average, up to five times more than when the act was thought of as harmless. But certain groups had a higher percentage of children who were seemingly primed to see aggression in the actions of others everywhere, which the researchers called a “hostile attributional bias”. This bias was associated with a greater likelihood (and increasing severity) of chronic behavioral problems reported by the mother-child pair, which in turn largely explained the group differences in aggression seen by the authors.

“Our research also indicates that cultures differ in their tendencies to socialize children to become defensive this way, and those differences account for why some cultures have children who act more aggressively than other cultures,” Dodge said. “It points toward the need to change how we socialize our children, to become more benign and more forgiving and less defensive. It will make our children less aggressive and our society more peaceful.”

For those wondering, the group of American kids, from Durham, North Carolina, were neither the most or least likely to see a potential threat around every corner. Sweden and China had children with less aggressive tendencies, while Zarqa, Jordan, and Naples, Italy had children with the most.

Though their study could be seen as discouraging to any would-be pacifists, Dodge believes that it may point the way to strategies that can prevent us from perpetuating a cycle of violence onto the next generation.

“The findings point toward a new wrinkle to the Golden Rule, Not only should we teach our children to do unto others as we would have them do unto ourselves, but also to think about others as we would have them think about us,” Dodge said. ”By teaching our children to give others the benefit of the doubt, we will help them grow up to be less aggressive, less anxious and more competent.”

Source: Dodge, Malone P,  Lansford J, et al. Hostile attributional bias and aggressive behavior in global context. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2015.

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