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Kids Expecting Aggression from Others Likely to Be Aggressive Themselves

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Teaching kids to give “benefit of the doubt” may reduce behavior problems, NIH-funded study finds

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Listen to this podcast (MP3 - 26 MB).

Two young boys showing signs of aggression towards each other.
-Stock photo.

Barrett Whitener: If someone offends you and you’re not sure whether they intended to, it’s best not to retaliate and to assume they meant no harm. That’s the takeaway message from an international study of how children react to a provocation. The study found that children who assumed a hostile intent after a minor infringement—being bumped from behind, for example—were more likely to react aggressively than those who assumed the offender meant no harm. Children likely to assume hostile intent were more likely to be involved in aggressive behaviors later on.

The researchers studied more than 1,200 children from 12 cultural groups in nine countries. In every one, they found a link between a child’s tendency to assign harmful intent to someone’s behavior and the prospect of responding aggressively. Also, some groups were more likely to assume a hostile intent than others.

The researchers believe that teaching children to give others the benefit of the doubt would reduce their involvement in aggressive or violent behaviors when they get older.

From the National Institutes of Health, I’m Barrett Whitener. This is “Research Developments,” a podcast from the NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the NICHD. The study was funded in part by the NICHD, and Dr. Mark Bornstein of NICHD was among the scientists who collaborated on the study.

With me today is the study’s lead author, Kenneth Dodge, who is also Director of the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University. Thank you for joining me today, doctor.

Kenneth Dodge: Happy to be here. Thank you.

Mr. Whitener: Let’s talk just a minute about what was known prior to your study, about this connection between a child’s assuming hostile intent and that child’s acting aggressively later.

Dr. Dodge: There has been a growing body of research over the past 40 years to try to identify the major cognitive mechanisms that lead an individual to engage in aggressive behavior, interpersonally aggressive behavior. And this body of research, of which I’ve been a part, had identified a pattern of defensive processing of information, particularly a pattern of interpreting hostile intent or perceiving threat from someone else, especially in ambiguous situations. That person is more likely to engage in aggression. And within that same person, when the person does not infer hostile intent or engage in defensive processing, that person does not engage in aggressive behavior.

This new study contributes in a couple of ways well beyond all previous research. First, all previous research had been conducted either in the United States or in a Western culture. And this study asked a question of whether that set of findings would also hold in a wide array of cultures across the world—12 different cultures that include both Western and Eastern cultures, include better socioeconomically advantaged cultures as well as more economically challenged cultures. And the first finding was that in every culture that we looked at, all 12, this pattern held pretty strongly.

The second major contribution was that we know that in some cultures, children are generally more aggressive than they are in other cultures. And we asked why. And lo and behold, we found that this pattern of defensive processing accounts for group differences across cultures: why it is that children in one culture might be more aggressive on average or in general than children in another culture. And it seems to be related to this pattern of defensive processing—which is very exciting, because it suggests culture-wide approaches for socializing children in a different way, in a way that might be more benign and less encouraging of this hypervigilance to threat.

Mr. Whitener: So if I’m understanding you correctly, some cultures are more likely to instill the idea or somehow communicate the idea to children that the proper response, when you’re not sure if somebody intended to be aggressive or not, is to be aggressive in return?

Dr. Dodge: Yes, that is what we believe—that cultures differ in the degree to which they socialize children in this way. The reasons for the cultural differences are speculation, but they might well lie in a history of actual threats that that culture has experienced from other cultures, or economically or for whatever. So the cultures adapt, but now they may be in a pattern of socializing the children in a way that leads their children to grow up more aggressively than they would want.

Mr. Whitener: Now, you mentioned in the study that this is the first tested model of this phenomenon at work. Can you describe a bit about the model, and how you measured a child’s likelihood of assuming that someone was hostile in their ambiguous encounter?

Dr. Dodge: Right. So the model of defensive processing borrows from basic cognitive science work begun by Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon many years ago in human problem-solving. It involves trying to understand how an individual processes information about social cues.

So a social cue might be an ambiguous provocation: a child is standing in line at school for the water fountain, and someone bumps up against him. Or a teenager is walking down the street and is disrespected by a peer. Or an adult couple are in a social interaction, and one couple says something to another—one person in the couple says something to another that might be disrespectful or threatening. These are ambiguous provocations.

And then we know from work in cognitive science that behavioral responses occur as a function of a sequential step, a set of processing responses that begin with selective attention: are they paying attention to that provocation cue or not? Then move to interpretation of that cue: do they interpret it as a hostile act by the other person or not? And then it moves to an emotional reaction: do they get angry or afraid? Or do they not emotionally react, which involves not only cognitive but also psychophysiological responding of heart racing, testosterone release, that sort of thing.

And then how do they generate behavioral responses? Do they generate a response of retaliation and anger, or do they generate a response of withdrawal and fear and walking away? And then how do they evaluate those potential responses as leading to desirable or undesirable outcomes? And then finally, what response do they select to implement and enact?
There are all of these steps of cognitive processing that occur.

The way that we assess those processes is to present hypothetical vignettes to our research participants: our children or adolescents or adults. We’ve done all different kinds of studies to present those hypothetical provocation stimuli—either on a computer screen, in a video, or in a cartoon story, or in a verbal story; in some way or another to present the hypothetical—ask the person to get engaged and imagine being in that situation, and then to respond to specific questions about what they attended to: what interpretation they would make, what emotion would they experience, what response would they generate, that sort of thing.

So that is the kind of work that’s been done in the laboratory for many years in a variety of contexts. But with this new study, we brought it into the field with 1,200 children in these 12 cultures across the world by using hypothetical vignette stories.

Mr. Whitener: What are some of the countries and cultures that you examined?

Dr. Dodge: They vary, and they were preselected because of the variation in socioeconomics and culture and geography and parenting practices. So for example, we include Trollhättan, Sweden, a community within the country of Sweden—in which, back in 1979, the country of Sweden made it a crime to spank their children. And so the parenting practices to socialize aggression, by law, do not include physical discipline.

On the other hand, we have cultures in which physical discipline of children is normative and common. For example, Kisumu, Kenya, where 90 percent of the children experience physical discipline and spanking. Other cultures include Naples, Italy, and Rome, Italy; Durham, North Carolina; Manilla, Philippines.

We have a sample in Medellin, Columbia, which was reputed to be one of the most violent cities and communities in the world. And then also cultures such as in China, where physical discipline of children is not common, but other kinds of socialization—berating children and humiliating children—is a strategic way to get them to behave. So it’s by intent a wide variety.

Mr. Whitener: Let’s dig a little bit deeper into your results. You mentioned that there was this statistically significant relationship between the child’s perceiving hostile intent and reacting aggressively. How does that connection play out over the course of the child’s later years?

Dr. Dodge: So from longitudinal studies, we understand there to be a reciprocal cascading dynamic that a child who has early life experiences—perhaps of harsh discipline, perhaps of maltreatment, perhaps of parenting or cultural experiences—comes to the peer group ready to perceive hostile intent and to be hypervigilant about threat. That child then inevitably experiences ambiguous provocations. All children do in the normal course of a day.

If that child then interprets the threat in a hostile way and retaliates aggressively, the child engages in fights, arguments, conflicts with peers. As the child does that, peers understandably then respond aggressively toward that child. So the child begins to grow a set of experiences that confirm—in a self-fulfilling prophecy way—that confirm that child’s initial perception that, indeed, the peer group is threatening.

So the child responds with further interpretations of threat that in some sense have a valid empirical base. And the child then responds aggressively. And that kind of interpersonal cycle just grows deeper and deeper.

That grows over time, and grows from minor peer arguments and fights into more major acts of violence as children become adolescents and have more lethal means possible for them, knives and guns and that sort of thing. And can grow into serious violence.

So we have longitudinal findings that show that children who experience threat and who interpret threats as hostile at a young age are likely as they grow into adolescents to become arrested for violent crimes. So the problem just becomes deeper and deeper and more severe over time.

Mr. Whitener: Now we have parents and caregivers listening to us. So I wondered if, for their benefit, you could discuss some of the implications of what you found. What might parents and caregivers do, or at least how might they think about this problem in raising a child?

Dr. Dodge: Right. I think the findings point toward the importance of parents talking through with their child conflicts that the child experiences: to encourage the child to try to understand an interpersonal conflict from the perspective of the other person in the conflict; to try to give the child a voice to communicate her or his perspective on it; and then to encourage the child to think about it in a different way.

In our interventions with children, we have tried to teach children to slow down and to interpret events in different ways. We have used the metaphor of a traffic stoplight as a way of a teaching children this. This is a metaphor that we’ve borrowed from Roger Weisberg and a number of people who are experts in social emotional learning, in which we ask the child initially, when the child experiences a conflict, to go to the red light. To stop as if you’re driving down the road. And to take a deep breath, count to 10, slow down, to slow down the process.

And then the second step is to go to the yellow light, which is to try to understand, and think about it in a different way. Why did I get so angry? What was the other person doing? Might the other person have a different intent and think about it in a different way? Can I rationally—can I calm down? Can I think this through?

And then, can I generate different ways of responding that don’t make things worse? So instead of retaliating and escalating the conflict, might I do something different? Might I walk away? Might I get an adult to help intervene? Might I talk to the other person? Use words rather than hitting, et cetera?

And then when the child is ready, go to the green light, which is to try a new solution. If it doesn’t work, you go back to the red light and start over. If it does work, then you proceed forward and on your way.

So we teach children that, and I suggest the parents can use that kind of metaphor or some kind of way of helping their child slow down and think differently about interpersonal conflicts.

Mr. Whitener: Let’s zoom out a little bit, as it were, and I wondered what your study’s implications are for reducing violence on a larger scale, within cultures and between cultures?

Dr. Dodge: Yes, that’s some of the exciting implications of this study and the research across cultures. There may be ways that cultures socialize children to interpret events in a hostile way. We could think about the kinds of television show episodes that we present to our children, in which we encourage this implicitly or not consciously or consciously. Encourage children to be vigilant toward threat and to interpret threat, and then to react aggressively when we perceive threat. So we might socialize differently about that.

Our leaders might show examples of restraint and different ways of responding. I think that this pattern applies not only to children in their interpersonal relationships. It applies to the way parents and children relate. It applies to the way adults relate to peers in the workplace. And it applies to our political leaders and the way that they interact with each other across political parties—as well as the way our country responds to other countries.

I don’t think there’s anything unique about child peer interactions. I think this phenomenon of interpreting threat and then reacting aggressively to presumed threat is a major reason for conflict at all of these levels.        

Mr. Whitener: Well, it sounds as though all parties have a part to play in reducing the amount of assumption of hostile intent and giving a more peaceful response.

Dr. Dodge: I hope so.

Mr. Whitener: Well, thanks so much for discussing your very important work with us today. I really appreciate your taking the time.

Dr. Dodge: Thank you.

Mr. Whitener: I’ve been speaking with Dr. Kenneth Dodge, lead author of the study, “Hostile Attributional Bias and Aggressive Behavior in Global Context.” It was published in the journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


About the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD): The NICHD sponsors research on development, before and after birth; maternal, child, and family health; reproductive biology and population issues; and medical rehabilitation. For more information, visit the Institute's website at​​​​​

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