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Understanding what social goals are associated with bullying and victimization behaviours, even after allowing for biases in interpretation of and affective responses to social events, is critical for understanding the socio-behavioural profile of bullies and victims. In the present study, 181 nine- to ten-year-olds' affective responses, attribution of intent, and social goals were assessed in the context of a series of ambiguous and overtly hostile provocation vignettes. Results showed that even after allowing for other social information processing biases, social goals were meaningfully associated with bullying and victimization scores. Bullying was inversely associated with relationship-building goals, and positively associated with goals to be assertive over the provocateur when provocation was overtly hostile. Being victimized was associated with having submissive goals even when provocation was ambiguous and after accounting for attribution of hostile intent. Findings are discussed in light of theoretical and practical implications.
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The present study offers clear evidence that social goals in provocation scenarios are systematically associated with levels of bullying and victimization behaviours, even after controlling for affective responses to the provocation and attribution of hostile intent. Moreover, the results suggest that bullies, but not victims, are able to adapt their social goals according to the nature of the provocation, endorsing goals for assertiveness only when provocation was overtly hostile.
Previous research that has considered the social goals of bullies reliably reports that such individuals place great importance on social dominance (Arsenio & Lemerise, 2001; Hawley, 2003; Rodkin, Farmer, Pearl, & Van Acker, 2000; Veenstra et al., 2007) and hold relationship damaging goals in response to provocation (Camodeca & Goossens, 2005; Crick & Dodge, 1999; Lochman, Wayland, & White, 1993; Rabiner & Gordon, 1992). Providing further support for these links, the present study found physical bullying to be associated with low levels of concern for getting on with the provocateur in both scenario types, and also with goals for assertiveness in response to the hostile provocation vignettes, even after allowing for SIP biases. Associations between social goals and relational bullying showed a similar pattern with regard to low relationship-building goals (relational bullying was associated with a low concern for getting on with the provocateur in response to ambiguous provocation, and low concern for not upsetting the provocateur in response to hostile provocation), but there was no association with goals for assertiveness. Because the above associations remained even after allowing for SIP biases, the present study provides good evidence that social goals may be particularly important in understanding how bullies respond to social situations.
The association between physical bullying and the goal for assertiveness was only evident in response to the overtly hostile scenarios. We argue that this is indicative of adaptive goal selection in bullies as their dominance over their peers is only realistically threatened in these scenarios. Interestingly, this association was not significant in the correlational analysis, implying that bullies hold goals for maintaining dominance in spite of the other SIP factors assessed, not because of them. Although relational bullying was not associated with assertiveness goals, this is arguably compatible with the conceptualization of the relational bully as a subtle manipulator of social groups who is concerned with their social image, and thus may not opt for the type of direct confrontation implied by assertive goals. Indeed, the relational bully may be more likely to prevent a repeat of hostility by delivering negative long-term consequences to the provocateur by means of gossip and peer-group manipulation. Physical bullying was also negatively associated with goals for avoiding the provocateur in ambiguous provocation scenarios. Again, we argue that this demonstrates an adaptive goal selection in bullies because there is little need to endorse a goal of avoidance in response to ambiguous provocation.
The social goals associated with victimization differed considerably from those associated with bullying. In line with the existing literature (Erdley & Asher, 1996; Veenstra et al., 2007), victimization was found to be positively associated with goals for harm avoidance (in response to ambiguous provocation) and submissiveness (in both scenario types). Erdley and Asher (1999; see also Juvonen & Graham, 2001) posited that the attribution of intent may lead withdrawn children to hold goals for avoiding the provocateur, and this is supported by the strong associations reported in the present study between attribution of intent and goals for avoiding the provocateur in both hostile and ambiguous scenarios. However, even after accounting for attributed intent and affective response, the goal for avoiding the provocateur remained associated with physical victimization, but only in ambiguous provocation scenarios where it is arguably misplaced. Ojanen, Aunola, and Salmivalli (2007) have suggested that victims have specific difficulties adapting their goals to the situation, and the present study has also indicated that victims were unable to adapt their goals in accordance with the nature of the provocation. It is not clear why the same association was not apparent with relational victimization, but it follows that because relational victims are not necessarily confronted by their harasser in their victimization experiences, they may not hold as strong a desire to avoid provocateurs especially when provocation is ambiguous in intent.
In hostile provocation scenarios, the submissive goal for ‘staying out of trouble by not causing a fuss’ predicted both forms of victimization even after allowing for affective responses and attribution of intent. That victims may hold submissive goals is well supported in the existing literature. For example, Ojanen et al. (2007) and Sijtsema et al. (2009) have reported that victims lacked status goals, perhaps because experiences of harassment leave victims with feelings of hopelessness and anxiety when dealing with provocation (Burgess, Wojslawowicz, Rubin, Rose-Krasnor, & Booth-Laforce, 2006).
Thus, the present study has provided a more detailed picture of the social goals endorsed by victims. The reported associations imply that physical victims' desire to avoid even ambiguously intended provocation exists over and above the influence of their affective response and attribution of intent. Victims also hold submissive goals (even after allowing for SIP biases) in response to overtly hostile provocation. With these findings taken together, the goals associated with victimization (perhaps the consequence of an avoidance schema developed through previous experiences of harassment) are arguably non-adaptive in resolving the situations successfully, and may increase the likelihood that the victim will become the target of subsequent aggressive acts.
Whereas the social goals associated with bullying/victimization reported here are fairly congruent with the existing literature, it is worth considering some of the associations among affective response, interpreted hostile intent and bullying/victimization that were less expected. Firstly, bullying was not associated with interpreted intent in either scenario type. Although this would be expected in ambiguous provocation scenarios, it is not clear why bullying was not associated with interpreted intent in response to overtly hostile provocation. Although this calls into question the validity of the attribution of intent measure, the associations that were reported among attribution of intent, affective response, and social goals are both logical and echo existing literature (see Erdley & Asher, 1999), lending criterion validity to the measure.
Secondly, victimization was not associated with feeling angry or sad in either scenario type. This is in contrast with previous research (e.g., Camodeca & Goossens, 2005). However, in the present study, we excluded the children who were identified as bully-victims—a subgroup considered to have the most difficulty in emotion regulation (Toblin, Schwartz, Gorman, & Abou-ezzeddine, 2005). It is likely that associations between victimization and affective response were not found here as a result, and demonstrates the importance of distinguishing this subgroup in any further research. Interestingly, relational victimization was actually negatively associated with ‘feeling angry’ in response to hostile provocation. This may be further indication that victims do not adapt their affective response across ambiguous and hostile provocation, or alternatively could imply that they show low levels of anger in response to provocation (perhaps because they have come to accept these occurrences). Either way, this would be an interesting avenue for further research.
Thirdly, victimization was not associated with interpreted hostile intent in either scenario type. Again, this may be in part because we excluded bully-victims from our correlational analysis, but it should also be considered that the associations between victimization and interpreted intent neared significance. Because the weight of the associations was very similar across scenario types, it could be considered further indication that victims do not distinguish ambiguous from hostile provocation in terms of their social cognitive processing.
Strengths and Limitations of the Current Study
This study has provided important evidence that social goals are likely to have a critical role to play in predicting bullying and victimization. To our knowledge, it is the first study to consider the social goals associated with bullying and victimization after accounting for affective response and interpreted hostile intent. It is also one of few studies in the field that has examined the social goals associated with victimization, and the only one that has attempted to identify and remove bully-victims from the sample so that a clearer picture of the social goals held by ‘pure’ bullies and victims can be painted. Additionally, by investigating situation-specific goals, the present study provides increasingly detailed information on the social motivation of bullies and victims, and adds a new perspective to associations reported in previous studies that have assessed children's trait-like social goals (e.g., Sijtsema et al., 2009). The next step is to determine the specific effects that these goals have on children's behaviour in response to provocation, potentially as mediators of the broader trait-like variations in social motivation that have been studied by Ojanen, Gronroos, and Salmivalli (2005) and Sijtsema et al. (2009). Specifically, do relationship damaging goals or goals for social dominance predict responses for confrontation, avoidance, or problem solving? And do submissive goals in victims have a direct influence on their response to provocation? Further research is needed that considers the social-cognitive factors investigated here, alongside the responses that children select in reaction to provocation.
There are, however, various limitations that need to be considered. Firstly, the association between bullying and the goal for assertiveness in response to hostile provocation has been held to indicate a general concern for maintaining an image of social dominance in bullies. It is not yet clear whether this inference is well founded as the same goal could equally demonstrate a short-term concern with protecting the self. Moreover, dominance is likely to be multifaceted, and there are several different reasons why an individual might desire it (e.g., individual self-enhancement vs. protecting one's social group). Further research that investigates the response strategies that are developed to fulfil goals for assertiveness or dominance in social situations may help us better understand the nature of their ambitions. Similarly, the goal for ‘staying out of trouble by not making a fuss’ was held to represent submissiveness, but could also indicate a self-protective concern for not getting into trouble with the teacher. Future research should take care to distinguish these response options.
Secondly, the present study assessed social goals in response to provocation only. Although provocation scenarios have been argued to provide a particularly strong situation from which to identify the social-cognitive biases that may be prevalent in certain groups of children (see Erdley & Asher, 1999, for a review), bullies are often the instigators rather than the receptors of provocation within their peer group (Coie, Dodge, Terry, & Wright, 1991). Thus, there is a clear need for future research to consider which social goals are associated with bullying and victimization in a wider range of social situations, including scenarios where the child casts him/herself as the aggressor or provocateur.
Thirdly, there was some indication that the social goals we assessed in the present study may not have been particularly salient to the children who participated in this study. Although it is possible to hold multiple social goals simultaneously, the correlations between goals for avoidance/submissiveness and goals for gaining revenge/being assertive across both scenario types do seem incongruent. Nevertheless, consultation with some similar-age children with hindsight of these associations suggested that they did understand the distinction, and that we had presented children with valid goals in the context of the scenarios. An important task for future research will, therefore, be to untangle the way in which multiple social information-processing factors (attributions of intent, emotional reactions, and various simultaneously held social goals) may interact with each other in influencing socio-behavioural outcomes.
Finally, it should be noted that the variance in bullying/victimization explained by the SIP predictors was low, especially for physical victimization. Consequently, there are likely to be other variables able to explain more variance in bullying and victimization scores. Indeed, an inspection of the existing literature on bullying and victimization suggests that there are significant associations with a range of behavioural, cognitive, emotional, and distal factors, with school ethos and climate also playing a significant role (Smith, 2004). Nevertheless, the present study contributes to this literature, demonstrating that the social goals children hold in response to provocation have an important role to play in understanding bullying and victimization.
Implications for Intervention Strategies
The present study offers various potential directions for intervention strategies. If bullies' motivation for social dominance is calculated rather than emotional, it may be worth demonstrating prosocial techniques to achieve positive social status, subsequently achieving popularity without relying on aggressive behaviours (which often results in peer rejection in the long term, see Rigby & Slee, 1993). In fact, various peer-mentoring intervention strategies have carefully selected individuals to serve as positive mentors and have met with success in reducing bullying (see Farrington & Ttofi, 2009).
With regard to victims, this study has found victims of bullying to entertain goals of submission. This is unsurprising given that they have most likely experienced harassment over a period of time, putting them at risk for emotional problems, such as depressive symptoms, lower self-worth, and social anxiety (Boivin, Dodge, & Coie, 1995; Craig, 1998; Graham, Bellmore, & Mize, 2006). However, effectively dealing with provocation is important for finding a route out of repeated provocation in the future. Programmes that develop the social skills of victims and empower them, not just to deal with provocation but also to engage with others positively in ambiguous situations, are therefore likely to meet with success (again, see Farrington & Ttofi, 2009, for a systematic review of social skills training schemes).