DAVIS — While experts often view aggressive behavior as a maladjusted
reaction typical of social outcasts, a new University of California,
Davis, study finds that it’s actually popular adolescents–but not
the most popular ones–who are particularly likely to torment their
“Our findings underscore the argument that–for the most
part–attaining and maintaining a high social status likely involves
some level of antagonistic behavior,” said Robert Faris, an assistant
professor of sociology at UC Davis.
The study, co-authored by UC Davis sociology professor Diane Felmlee,
is published in the February issue of the American Sociological
Review. It also finds that those students in the top 2 percent of the
school social hierarchy–along with those at the bottom–are the
“The fact that they both have reduced levels of aggression is true,
but it can be attributed to quite different things,” Faris said. “The
ones at the bottom don’t have the social power or as much capacity to
be aggressive whereas the ones at the top have all that power, but
don’t need to use it.”
Students’ popularity was determined by how central they were in their
school’s web of friendships. The authors define aggression as
behavior directed toward harming or causing pain to another. It can
be physical (hitting, shoving or kicking), verbal (name-calling or
threats) or indirect (spreading rumors or ostracism).
In general, the study, which followed kids over the course of a
school year, finds that increases in social status for both males and
females are accompanied by subsequent increases in aggression until a
student approaches the top of the social hierarchy.
According to the researchers, adolescents in the top 2 percent of the
social hierarchy–where aggression peaks–have an average aggression
rate that is 28 percent greater than students at the very bottom and
40 percent greater than students at the very top. Aggression rate is
calculated based on the number of classmates a student victimized in
the past three months.
“Aggression usually requires some degree of social support, power or
influence,” Faris said. “This is mostly because students expect to
see each other on a daily basis at school and any act of aggression
brings risk of retaliation. Those at the center of the web of social
ties are, we believe, more powerful and may deter retribution.”
Yet, those students at the very top of the social hierarchy–who
seemingly possess the most social capacity for
aggressiveness–generally aren’t aggressive.
“If an adolescent at the top of the social hierarchy were to act
aggressively towards his or her peers, such action could signal
insecurity or weakness rather than cement the student’s position,”
said Faris. “And, it’s possible that, at the highest level, they may
receive more benefits from being pro-social and kind.”
Faris also acknowledged the possibility that kids at the top level
are “somehow different” and “not disposed to aggressiveness in the
The Faris/Felmlee study relies on data from The Context of Adolescent
Substance Use survey, a longitudinal survey of adolescents at 19
public schools in three counties in North Carolina that began in the
spring of 2002. The Faris/Felmlee study is based on 3,722 eighth-,
ninth- and 10th -grade students who participated during the 2004-5
While the study focuses on a sample of small-town and rural North
Carolina students, Faris expects similar results in bigger cities.
“I would be surprised if kids in New York City or LA were radically
different than kids in North Carolina,” Faris said.
As for policy implications of the study, Faris said interventions
targeted specifically at aggressive kids or victims miss the point.
“I would start by focusing on the kids who are not involved and work
on encouraging them to be less passive or approving of these sorts of
antagonistic relationships,” he said. “It’s through these kids who
are not involved that the aggressive kids get their power.”