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Reducing Aggression by Teaching Teens that People Can Change

When adults see media coverage of teens reacting aggressively to minor provocation, they often assume this behaviour is influenced by a teenager’s family background and experiences.  And although a hostile family and school environment can contribute to aggressive behaviour, new research shows that the tendency of teens to act aggressively also depends on their belief about people’s ability or inability to change. This finding may help adults create education programs aimed at reducing violence and aggressive behaviour, and give parents important ideas on how to talk to children about people’s potential for change.

Dr David Yeager from University of Texas and his colleagues* looked at the difference in behaviours between:

- teenagers who believe people’s character traits are fixed and can’t change (a ‘fixed’ view), and

- teenagers who believe that people can change (a ‘malleable’ view).

Their research found that regardless of teenagers’ backgrounds, their beliefs about the fixedness or malleability of personality traits, predict whether they are more likely to seek out aggressive revenge for what they think is provocation.  

If a teenager believes that the world is made up of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ people”  it makes a teen “quick to categorise someone in the ‘bad’ camp … even when they only see a thin slice of their behaviour” says Dr Yeager, like being bumped in the hallway at school for example, or being left out of a conversation.  And teens with a 'fixed' belief that a peer is ‘bad', are more likely to respond with aggression.

Teenagers’ Beliefs about Change - The Effect on Aggressive Behaviour

Dr Yeager and colleagues* conducted studies with over 1600 teenagers from diverse cultural and socio-economic backgrounds; they found that teens who believed people can’t change were more likely to think something they didn’t like was done on purpose, and then want aggressive revenge. A teen with a ‘fixed’ belief from any cultural or socio-economic background was much more likely to say that they wanted to “hurt”, “get back at” or “punish” in response to conflict or exclusion by a peer.

By teaching some of the teens in the study about the plasticity of the brain, showing them notes from older students describing how people are capable of change and then writing notes to future students on this topic, the researchers found that even eight months later, the teens’ desire for ‘aggressive revenge’ was reduced. This supports an earlier study in which Dr Yeager and colleagues worked with students in a low-income urban public high school with mostly minority students; they found that teaching teens the ‘malleable’ view reduced aggression by approximately 40% a month later - and effects persisted all the way until the end of the school year, when the study was completed.

There is evidence that violent behaviour is influenced by violent inputs, for example, from being a victim of abuse, consuming violent media, or living in a violent neighbourhood. However, Dr Yeager says that this new data shows “how violent behaviour comes from violent interpretations, not just violent experiences.  You can interpret your world as hostile because you have experienced hostility.  Or you can also make that interpretation if you have a belief that everyone is either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and that you can know that just from one action they did.”

    “We think you can have that belief even if you've only been praised your whole life for being a ‘good person,’ with very few negative inputs.  Because of this, even kids who grow up in non-hostile environments can reach hostile conclusions about a conflict with a peer.”

    “People ignore the vulnerability that even rich suburban kids might have if they have fixed mindsets.   We don't often realise that even seemingly innocuous beliefs - like a belief that personality traits are fixed - can give rise to sometimes very aggressive interpretations and responses to a conflict.”

How Teachers and Parents Can Help Reduce Aggression

Looking for practical applications for this research, I asked Dr Yeager about how parents and teachers could use this knowledge about ‘malleable’ and ‘fixed’ beliefs when communicating with children.

Here are three key ideas: