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A new approach to curbing the effects of bullying

David Yeager
David Yeager

A new approach to curbing the effects of bullying

Teaching teens that people can change boosts resilience, says David Yeager.

By Amy Yuen

Why do some high schoolers who experience bullying move on or even confront the perpetrators, while others seek revenge or suffer from depression? School of Education doctoral candidate David Yeager (MA ’10, Psychology) has an answer:  Those who are resilient believe that being bullied doesn’t last forever because they know that people have the capacity for change.

Yeager’s research focuses on what leads some targets of teen bullying to want to respond violently—either towards the bully or towards themselves. In a series of double-blind randomized, controlled field experiments, he developed and staged novel interventions in high schools to reduce behavioral aggression and promote resilience over time.

“When adolescents think that victimization is something that is permanent—resulting from the belief that bullies are ‘bad’ people who won’t stop, and that victims will always be ‘losers’—then they seek more drastic, vengeful solutions to their conflicts,” said Yeager, a student in the Development and Psychological Sciences doctoral program.  “But when they believe that people have the potential for change—both they themselves and the people who treat them badly—then victimization seems less like a diagnosis of their future, and more like something that will pass.  Hence, it becomes less stressful and less threatening.”
In one study conducted at a low-income, diverse public high school, Yeager held brief workshops in which normal classroom teachers showed adolescents the science behind people’s potential for change.  In a control group, students learned extensive coping skills. One month later, students’ aggression was measured using a standard psychological procedure.  During a controlled experiment in school, students were excluded during a video game and then had the opportunity to retaliate by making the excluding peer eat food he or she did not like—in this case, uncomfortably spicy hot sauce.  Yeager found that students who learned that people can change allocated 40% less hot sauce to the peer who excluded them, indicating less aggression.  They then had the chance to pass the peer a note.  Students who were taught that people can change were three times more likely to write friendly notes to the peer who left them out of the game.  

By the end of the semester, Yeager found that the message about personal change also reduced absences, suspensions for fighting, and depression among victimized students.

“Bullying and victimization are among the most critical issues facing students today. But, especially in high school, we don't always know what to do about it,” said Carol Dweck, Yeager’s dissertation advisor and the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology and (by courtesy) of Education. “David's research makes great headway in understanding these issues and addressing them successfully."

Yeager’s dissertation, “Implicit Theories and Aggression: A Process Model and an Intervention” has garnered a number of awards in the past year. In 2010, he was one of three students nationwide to receive the American Psychological Association Dissertation Research Award and one of twenty to receive the Spencer Foundation Dissertation Writing Fellowship. At the World Conference for the International Society for Research on Aggression, he received the Lagerspetz award for exceptional presentation by an early career investigator. And in January, the Society for Research on Child Development presented him an award given to the top five dissertation proposals in all areas of child development.

As for the project’s next steps, Yeager said, “The eventual goal is to scale up.  But first, it’s important to continue to map out the reasons why the message about change has these effects.  That’s the only way researchers can figure out what part of the intervention to scale, and what can be left out.”

Yeager’s research has been funded by a grant from the Thrive Foundation for Youth and by a dissertation support grant from the Stanford University School of Education.

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