Aggressive behavior has traditionally been considered an indicator of psychological or behavioral maladaptation (impulsivity, social cognitive deficits) that puts the child at risk for peer rejection. Yet we casually observe that many high-status and well-accepted individuals (e.g., CEOs, political leaders) are modestly aggressive in their own right. Is aggression in some contexts adaptive and socially competent?
A strategy-based evolutionary perspective on resource control and social dominance suggests that there are at least two types of aggressive individuals: those who engage in purely coercive strategies of resource control (e.g., make threats of harm) and those who balance coercion with prosocial strategies (e.g., promise reciprocation, friendship). Hypothesized here is that those who balance the two strategies enjoy high resource control and high status. Furthermore, these children were hypothesized to be relatively socially skilled, in contrast to prevailing views that suggest aggressive children are particularly unskilled.
Two independently measured resource control strategies (prosocial and coercive) give rise to five resource control groups: prosocial controllers (high prosocial control, low coercive control); coercive controllers (high coercive, low prosocial); bistrategic controllers (high on both); noncontrollers (low on both); and typical children (midrange on both).
Teachers described bistrategic controllers as being supreme resource controllers. Additionally, these children were similar to prosocial controllers in terms of positive characteristics as well as similar to coercive controllers in terms of negative characteristics.
One hundred and sixty-three preschoolers participated in this study. Teachers were asked via questionnaire about the children’s resource control abilities and strategies (prosocial, coercive), personalities, aggressive behavior, and social skills. The children were interviewed for their verbal ability, moral reasoning (e.g., “Is it right or wrong to take a toy from another child?”), and social problem-solving skills (e.g., “What would you do to get a turn?”). We also assessed whether the children were esteemed by peers by asking each child to nominate peers who they most liked. Those who received the most nominations were considered well-accepted.
Teachers described bistrategic controllers as being supreme resource controllers. Additionally, these children were similar to prosocial controllers in terms of positive characteristics as well as similar to coercive controllers in terms of negative characteristics. For example, bistrategics were well above average on peer acceptance and highest on attention to social cues (they know how they make others feel) and emotional manipulation (they can pretend to be angry/sad to get what they want). Prosocial controllers were rated equally as accepted and equally skilled as the bistrategics, but not emotionally manipulative. Coercive controllers were neither accepted nor skilled, but, like bistrategics, highly manipulative. The bistrategic personality profile stands out as low on anxiety and high on extroversion. They were rated high on all types of aggressive behavior (hitting, social exclusion) like coercive controllers, but uniquely high in relational aggression (i.e., social exclusion; “you can’t play with us”). Despite their aggression, they were the least likely to admit to using coercion and most likely to claim to use competent strategies on the social problem-solving measure. Furthermore, they were the most developed in their moral reasoning. Last, they as a group received the most “like most” nominations from their peers.
The approach applied here highlights the utility of exploring different subgroups of aggressive children. Aggressiveness paired with prosociality may be in some ways adaptive and, rather than being associated with skills deficits, appears to be associated with indicators of social competence.
Hawley, P.H. (2003). Strategies of control, aggression, and morality in preschoolers: An evolutionary perspective. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 85, 213-235.
Hawley, P.H. (2003). Prosocial and coercive configurations of resource control in early adolescence: A case for the well-adapted Machiavellian. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 49, 279-309 (Special volume: Aggression and adaptation: The bright side to bad behavior).