AMONG high schoolers, why are rebels so well liked by their peers?
And why do nice kids finish last?
Research at the Australian Catholic University has examined almost 3000 high school students from Years 8 to 12 to discover the answers to these questions that can be a major source of angst among teens.
ACU’s Institute for Positive Psychology and Education Professor Joseph Ciarrochi was the lead researcher on “The upsides and downsides of darkness” paper recently published in the international journal, Frontiers in Psychology.
His work found that while rebel teens were popular with the opposite sex in junior high, it was the nice kids who, by Year 12, came out on top in terms of all-round popularity.
“When examining the key to building strong social networks, society sometimes offers an intuitively appealing position such as, ‘We need to be nice to others, cooperate, support, empathise and give to others,” Professor Ciarrochi said.
“But, if this is correct, why are so many antisocial behaviours also popular?”
To answer the question, the research classified the high school students into four types: Nice kids who are high in empathy and low in antisocial behaviour (aggression, breaking rules); Rebels who show the opposite pattern and lack empathy; ‘nice rebels” who are both empathic and antisocial, and finally ‘non-players’ who use neither strategy.
Professor Ciarrochi was surprised the aggressive behaviours benefitted the nice rebels.
“In junior high school (Years 8 to 10), the nice rebels had more opposite-sex friends than the nice kids, which suggests that their youth potentially saw rebels as charming, interesting, and powerful,” he said.
“Junior high is a long time for a kid. However, by senior high, rebels lost some of those friends. But it took longer than I thought for the nice rebels to lose.
“I was also surprised that aggressive strategies were much costlier for teenage females than for teenage males.
“The nice rebel females had worse mental health and well-being than their male counterparts.
“Society often teaches women to emulate men in the workplace, be aggressive and do what it takes, including breaking the rules.
“But, whether right or wrong, these strategies may have a much bigger cost for women than for men.”
The non-players were often invisible to the opposite sex and received the fewest opposite-sex friendship nominations of all groups.
In an interesting twist, the rebels lost friends in senior high and the nice kids had the most opposite-sex friends.
The nice kids also had more same-sex friendships (this continued throughout high school) and higher well being than any other group.
Professor Ciarrochi said adults used the same strategies as the teenagers, though the strategies looked different in the adult world.
“When a person is young and immature, we may see aggressive rule breakers as good fun and dominant, but the lack of trust we have in these antisocial types can lead to a loss in the friendship itself,” he said.
“To succeed in the adult world, you need strong alliances.
“You need to be able to work in teams, make connections, nurture other people’s talent, and call other people when you need support.
“You need other people, and they need you.
“However, you do not want to be a doormat, a good person who everybody uses. “The trick is to be assertive, not aggressive. Aggressive behaviours intend to hurt, whereas assertiveness intends to set boundaries and protect your rights and the rights of others you care about.”