Psych Researchers Measure Relational Aggression

Carolyn Dopp '11, Liz Chapin '12 and Danielle Mortarano '12.
Carolyn Dopp '11, Liz Chapin '12 and Danielle Mortarano '12.
Rapidly becoming a cult classic, Mean Girls gives its viewers more than a wildly entertaining movie experience: it offers a front row seat to the effects of relational aggression. Initially thought to be present mostly in middle- and high-school girls, relational aggression has been found in almost all demographics, including young men and adults. Working under psychology professors Gregory Pierce and Penny Yee, Liz Chapin ’12, Carolyn Dopp ’11 and Danielle Mortorano ’12 have been testing new ways to measure relational aggression.

Relational aggression is defined as the intentional manipulation of social relationships in order to inflict damage (usually psychological) on another person. In the past it has been called many other names, but psychologists have more recently drawn all of these types of aggression under the umbrella of relational aggression.

Although it is often represented in covert ways, like in Mean Girls and other texts that have recently increased in popularity, it can often be more explicit. Relational aggression is often associated with young women because women don’t utilize physical aggression as much as do men, although men reported more relationally-aggressive behavior. Relational aggression has traditionally been measured on a one-dimensional scale, ranging from victimization (feeling excluded from a group or ridiculed on purpose) to aggression, but more recent analysis has suggested a four-dimensional scale called the Peer Relationships Inventory (PRI).

The PRI scale rates how aggressive an individual is, his/her feelings of victimization, whether or not he or she received support, and whether the individual offered support to someone in a similar situation. Chapin, Dopp and Mortorano are spending their summer assessing the validity of this new form of measurement and seeing what should be added to more accurately detect and predict relational aggression.

Relational aggression is easy to observe in younger children, which explains why most of the past studies have focused on that group. But relational aggression is also prevalent in college-aged adults, although it has not been studied as often. Self-reports are a good way to avoid complicated observation, because “college kids are pretty honest in self-reports,” Mortorano said.

The team is working with three sets of data to assess the new PRI scale, which were collected at Hamilton in self-report surveys. They found that high scores on the victimization subscale correlated to high scores on the aggressor subscale. “People tend to be in social networks where everyone is more relationally aggressive,” Dopp explained. “You don’t really aggress outside your social group.” There could be other personality variables to explain why particular people are in the same social network, such as low self esteem and hostile attribution bias (the tendency to view other’s actions as hostile), that may affect levels of relational aggression. There were also strong correlations between being victimized and offering support, which could be explained by higher levels of empathy in those who have also been victimized.

Interestingly, parenting styles and quality can have an enormous impact on an individual’s relational aggression. Citing data from the parental disciplinary questionnaire in the self-report, the group found that children whose mothers explain their disciplinary styles report less aggression and victimization. The team will focus more on this in the fall, as well as expand upon lab-induced studies of relational aggression.

Chapin is a graduate of Marymount School of New York in Manhattan; Mortorano graduated from Mount Saint Dominic Academy in Caldwell, N. J.; Dopp is a graduate of the National Cathedral School in Washington, D.C.

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