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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Aggression in the Context of Social Inequality

  • Author(s): Naecker, Jessica Ernandes
  • Advisor(s): Turiel, Elliot
  • et al.

Antisocial or aggressive behavior is widely recognized as a public health concern because of its potential to adversely affect the emotional, social, and academic development of aggressors, victims, and witnesses. There exists a tremendous amount of research on aggressive behavior from a myriad of theoretical orientations. The research project described here focuses on just one of the theoretical perspectives and research paradigms shown to be associated with aggressive behavior: that entailing moral reasoning.

Notably, research on aggression and moral reasoning has focused predominately on typical development and prototypical moral situations, or straightforward situations in which a child acts aggressively toward a peer without provocation. To address if and why some children find it acceptable to harm others, only a handful of studies have been conducted to understand individual differences. Most of this research takes a Kholbergian approach and concludes that aggressive children are simply morally deficient or detached from their moral values. Research in individual differences conducted using the social domain perspective, however, suggests that aggressive children think about moral issues in similar ways to their non-aggressive peers, but may view aggressive behavior more similarly to social conventions or as matters of personal jurisdiction than their nonaggressive counterparts.

Research in the social domain tradition also strongly supports the importance of taking into account situational contexts when investigating moral reasoning. One contextual variable yet to be fully considered in the research on moral decision-making is social inequality. That is to say, we know relatively little about how children, over the course of development, think about societal inequalities, let alone if they believe aggression is at times an appropriate response and whether there exist individual differences in this belief. There does exist a small but growing body of research about how children behave in the context of inequality. These studies demonstrate that children take into account contextual information about inequality when making decisions, but they do not (a) investigate individual differences in children’s sharing (i.e., whether some children are more or less likely to correct inequalities than others) and (b) rarely investigate children’s rationales for their behavior.

The primary purpose of the study was to further understand children’s decisions about acting in aggressive ways in the context of social inequality. The participants were 89 children (ages six to 11 whose primary language was English) and their teachers. The sample of children included in this study was 50% female, predominately White (72.50%) and predominately upper middle-class (mean family income was between $80,000 and $89,999; SD = $2,900). The study consisted of two parts: an interview and a resource allocation task. The 89 children were administered a 20-minute interview in a private room in their school. During the interviews, children were presented with four short vignettes: one depicting unprovoked physical aggression, one depicting physical aggression provoked by taunting a child’s appearance/intellect, and two depicting physical aggression involving salient themes of inequality. Participants were asked to provide judgments of the acceptability of violence in each vignette, and participants were asked to justify their judgments. During the second portion of the study, children were asked to participate in a resource allocation task and were randomly assigned to one of two conditions: a control condition and a social inequality condition. During each condition, participants were asked to divide three cookies between the two pictured students.

Results from the interview portion of the study suggest, overall, that moderately-aggressive and unaggressive children evaluate acts of physical aggression surprisingly similarly. The results indicate that nearly all children differentiated between conditions that involved provocation and those that did not. Analysis of individual differences revealed that moderately aggressive and unaggressive children did not differ in their judgments of the provoked aggression conditions. Analyses did, however, reveal unexpected differences in children’s judgments on the basis of gender and race. Analysis of children’s justifications indicated that children were highly likely to use moral justifications, and that children were equally likely to use moral justifications in response to each vignette condition. Analyses of individual differences in children’s justifications revealed that children with different behavioral tendencies were all equally likely to use moral justification in their responses. Once again, unexpected differences in justifications were found between children of different genders and races.

Results from the resource allocation task demonstrated that children assigned to the social inequality condition shared more cookies than their peers in the control condition. However, the effect of the resource allocation condition was moderated by teacher-rated aggressive behavior, such that moderately-aggressive children assigned to the social inequality condition gave more cookies than any other group of children. Also, teacher-rated aggressive behavior interacted with household income, such that moderately-aggressive children from medium-income households shared more cookies than their unaggressive peers and moderately-aggressive, high-income peers. In addition, findings from the resource allocation task indicate that children’s allocation justifications were significantly associated with their allocation behavior.

Possible explanations for the unexpected findings on the basis of gender and race are discussed, as well as directions for future research, and unavoidable methodological limitations.

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