In modern America, we often hear of children harming other children in school settings. Can anything be done to improve this situation?
In a recent study, David Yeager, Kali Trzesniewski and Carol Dweck of Stanford University sought to examine whether the belief that people can change may impact aggression in the school context. The researchers were inspired by a body of work suggesting that believing people can change is associated with a host of positive outcomes, such as greater persistence on difficult tasks.
The study features three groups of 9th and 10th graders. A third of the teens participated in a six-session workshop where they learned that people’s personalities could change. A second third of the children participated in a workshop that focused on coping skills. The last third of the children did not participate in a workshop.
Four weeks later, the researchers carried out a procedure in which the teens thought they were playing a computer-based ball-tossing game with two other peers. In reality, the researchers controlled the other two “players” in the game, and these two “players” interacted with the teen by excluding him from the game.
The researchers were interested in whether the teens that learned that people could change would react less aggressively to this social exclusion. Aggression was measured by the amount of hot sauce that teens sent their “partner” to “try.” The results showed that the teens that had been in the coping skills workshop gave an average of 43 grams of hot sauce and the teens that hadn’t been through any workshop gave around 38 grams. By contrast, the teens in the “people can change” workshop gave about 25 grams, a quite significant difference.
Similarly, 50% of the children in this group gave more nice notes to the person who had excluded them, while only about 10% of the other groups gave nice notes. In fact, the children in these other groups actively described their intention to harm the “bully.”
Simply put, teaching children that people can change may trigger a systemic decrease in aggression, which may in turn reduce violence in America’s schools.
Rodolfo Cortes is a doctoral candidate in Developmental Psychology at Stanford University. He has over seven years of research experience with young children, having volunteered in the laboratories of Professor Joseph Campos and Professor Alison Gopnik during his undergraduate career at UC Berkeley. His current research, advised by Professor Carol Dweck at Stanford, focuses on the role of interpersonal relationships in promoting children’s creativity and generosity. As the Thomas Murphy Fellow at the Center for Childhood Creativity, Rodolfo hopes to share his knowledge of child development with parents and the public in order to promote creative thinking in all children.