Are We Fixed or Fluid? Effects of Adolescent Beliefs on Responses to Victimization

International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution

Research has shown that interventions aimed at reducing aggression and violence in children yield mixed results when extended to adolescents. This is particularly concerning due to the fact that aggression can become increasingly violent or serious during adolescence. Thus, researchers have turned their attention to understanding the causes of adolescent aggression in response to victimization or exclusion.

One team of researchers (Yeager, et. al. 2013) chose to focus on adolescents’ beliefs about the potential to change personal characteristics. In short, there are two basic beliefs: 1) personality traits are fixed; in other words, “bullies”, “losers”, or “victims” cannot change (entity theory); or 2) people have the capacity for change—victimization may be thought of as done by and to people who can change over time (incremental theory).

The researchers proposed that adolescents who held the belief that people cannot change would harbor a greater desire to “get back at” peers who had snubbed or insulted them. They also hypothesized that if students were taught an incremental theory that people can change, they would be less likely to engage in aggressive retaliatory behavior. Within the “bullying cycle”, this is considered an important point of intervention because victims find other victims to bully. Reducing aggressive responses can serve to reduce bullying generally.

Students from a diverse, low-income public high school were randomly assigned into one of three groups: 1) a six-session incremental theory training; 2) a control group receiving six sessions of instruction in social-emotional coping; 3) and a no-treatment control group.

Only the incremental theory group was found to have decreased aggressive responses among the students as well as increased pro-social behavior. This group was also more likely to receive significantly more nominations from teachers for having reduced their conduct problems, in comparison to the other two groups.

Adolescence, in addition to being a time of increased aggression, can also be a time when adolescents show an increased belief in the fixed nature of aggressor’s traits and behaviors. By addressing a belief that shapes their interpretations of events in their environment, practitioners interested in utilizing incremental theory may also be shaping adolescents’ patterns of behavior in a manner that helps them respond to victimization in nonviolent ways.

Yeager, D. S., Trzesniewski, K. H., & Dweck, C. S. (2013). An implicit theories of personality intervention reduces adolescent aggression in response to victimization and exclusion. Child Development, 84(3), 970–88.


Jen Hull

Jen Hull is a Masters student in the Negotiation and Conflict Resolution program at Columbia University. MORE >

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