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Merrill-Palmer Quarterly 49.3 (2003) 239-242

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Aggression and Adaptive Functioning:
The Bright Side to Bad Behavior

Patricia H. Hawley
University of Kansas

Brian E. Vaughn
Auburn University

The following four papers were presented in a symposium at the meetings of the Society for Research in Child Development (Minneapolis, 2001) entitled Aggression and Adaptive Functioning: The Bright Side to Bad Behavior. The title of the symposium hinted at what we believe to be a frequently underreported aspect of human behavior: That aggression in certain contexts may be associated with positive outcomes and desirable traits. Furthermore, at least some (and possibly many) aggressive individuals appear to be socially attractive to peers rather than repellant. Indeed, we have observed that some very aggressive children are central figures in their social groups and tend to enjoy all the benefits of social inclusion. Thus, in its own way, each of the four papers challenges currently accepted assumptions about aggressive behavior and trait aggression.

We do not intend to suggest that the findings from these studies mean that "aggressive behavior is desirable." On the contrary, we agree that there is strong evidence that at least some aggressive individuals can harm society more than a little. Rather, our studies suggest that effective people can engage in behavior defined as socially undesirable (as can the less effective). It appears that aggressive behavior is working well (i.e., is adaptive) for some individuals in that personal goals are attained at relatively little personal or interpersonal cost. This suggests [End Page 239] nuance and complexity when assigning meaning to aggressive behavior and trait aggression, and furthermore implies that relations between adjustment and aggression may not be optimally described by standard linear models.

In their article contained in this special issue, Vaughn, Vollenweider, Bost, Azria-Evans, and Snider consider aggressive behavior in preschoolers from two perspectives: (a) direct observations of initiated behavior that includes or results in negative affect from one or both members of the interacting dyad, and (b) indirect assessments of interaction quality and personality based on Q-sort descriptions made by experienced observers. Vaughn, et al. demonstrated that ratings and direct observations relevant to aggression tend to cohere across age, gender, and setting. Additionally, observed negative initiations and two of three Q-sort scales were positively associated with measures of social competence. A Q-sort scale referring to social dominance was most highly correlated with social competence and, when social dominance was controlled, correlations between social competence and the remaining aggression variables were reduced and no longer significant. These findings suggest that the interpretation of aggressive behavior and trait aggression as adaptive in the sense of promoting access to physical and psychological resources is useful and valid for preschool age children.

Hawley invokes the term Machiavellianism in her work describing a type of individual (here, preadolescents and adolescents) who possesses both positive and negative characteristics resulting in an apparently effective competitor that wins both status and positive peer regard. Launching from theoretical works in evolutionary biology and by drawing on the notion of strategic differentiation, Hawley proposes that aggressive behavior when balanced by prosocial behavior may epitomize a kind of social competence in that such individuals demonstrate superior ability at personal goal attainment while, at the same time, using high levels of aggression in ways that evidently do not jeopardize (and may even enhance) their standing in the peer group. Hawley underscores the necessity to identify different types of aggressive individuals; her work suggests that the effectiveness of skills-based intervention programs may in part depend on whether the participants are already highly socially skilled and well adept at perspective taking (Machiavellians) or not (coercive controllers). In addition, her work highlights an additional "at-risk" group worthy of interventionist attention (i.e., noncontrollers).

Prinstein and Cillessen found partial inspiration in the ethological literature, which they point out has long found links between aggression [End Page 240] and social status. In contrast to these traditional approaches, Prinstein and Cillessen offer far more precise definitions of aggression and popularity and thereby explore in more detail the relationships among various...


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