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  • Five-Factor Model of Personality, Social Anxiety, and Relational Aggression in College Students
  • Daniel L. Deason (bio), Eric R. Dahlen (bio), Michael B. Madson (bio), and Emily Bullock-Yowell (bio)

Relational aggression involves behaviors intended to harm others’ social relationships, reputation or status, and feelings of belonging (Linder, Crick, & Collins, 2002). Relationally aggressive behaviors (e.g., social exclusion, malicious gossip, ignoring someone) are likely to interfere with college students’ well-being and success. Examples of the adverse correlates of relational aggression include peer rejection, anxiety and depression, poor psychological adjustment, problematic alcohol use, and dysfunctional anger (Dahlen, Czar, Prather, & Dyess, 2013; Goldstein, 2011; Werner & Crick, 1999). Campus professionals regularly encounter the impact of relational aggression. University housing offices receive complaints about relationally aggressive living situations, resident assistants are asked to settle disputes involving relationally aggressive students, and counseling center staff encounter students experiencing emotional distress due to relational victimization. By improving our understanding of relational aggression, we will be better equipped to mitigate its impact on campus. We investigated the relationship of the Five-Factor Model (FFM; Goldberg, 1990) of personality and social anxiety to peer relational aggression among college students.

The FFM conceptualizes personality as involving five latent domains: intellect/imagination (i.e., openness to experience), conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and emotional stability (i.e., the inverse of neuroticism). The FFM has been used to understand the role of personality in overt aggression where the strongest relationships involve low emotional stability, low agreeableness, and low conscientiousness (Hosie, Gilbert, Simpson, & Daffern, 2014; Miller, Zeichner, & Wilson, 2012). While less is known about the relationships of FFM traits to relational aggression, most of the traits should be relevant. Low emotional stability involves an increased tendency to experience unpleasant emotional states (e.g., anger), and low agreeableness involves antagonism and hostility. Students high in extraversion enjoy groups and social events, suggesting they may be more likely to participate in group activities where relational aggression occurs. The role of conscientiousness is less clear, but the inverse relationship between conscientiousness and impulse control suggests that it might be inversely related to at least some forms of relational aggression. Burton, Hafetz, and Henninger (2007) found that low emotional stability, low agreeableness, and low [End Page 110] conscientiousness were related to relational aggression. Similarly, Hines and Saudino (2008) found that low emotional stability was positively related to psychological aggression in students’ intimate partnerships, while conscientiousness and extraversion were positively related to psychological aggression, and agreeableness was inversely related to psychological aggression only among women. Learning more about the relationship of personality traits to relational aggression may be useful in improving our understanding of why some students are more relationally aggressive than others.

A relationship between social anxiety and relational aggression has long been posited, but research investigating it has been sparse. Socially anxious students who fear negative evaluation may engage in relationally aggressive behaviors to deflect attention from themselves, removing from their peer group those from whom they anticipate negative evaluation (Loudin, Loukas, & Robinson, 2003). The limited research connecting social anxiety to relational aggression is generally supportive. For example, Storch, Bagner, Geffken, and Baumeister (2004) found that relational aggression was positively associated with social anxiety in a college student sample, and Loudin and colleagues (2003) found that students who feared negative evaluation were more likely to engage in relationally aggressive behaviors. Thus, there is reason to expect that social anxiety is relevant to understanding relational aggression. It remains unclear whether social anxiety has the potential to explain unique variance in relational aggression beyond the FFM.

We explored the relationships among the broad domains of personality represented by the FFM, social anxiety, and relational aggression in a college student sample. We expected that emotional stability, agreeableness, and conscientiousness would be inversely related to relational aggression while extraversion would be positively related to relational aggression. In addition, we expected that social anxiety would be positively related to relational aggression, explaining additional variance over and above gender and the full FFM.


Participants and Procedure

Undergraduate volunteers (N = 342: 143 men and 199 women) of traditional college age were recruited from a midsized Southeastern university in the United States using the Department of Psychology’s web-based research system. Of the...


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pp. 110-114
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