Simply being nice wins more friends in high school than being a rebel, our study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology has found.
We looked at what sorts of social strategies help teens win close friends of the same and opposite sex. We asked whether aggressiveness and breaking rules – what we will call being a rebel – sometimes make teens well liked by their peers.
We found that empathetic children who also show some rebellious and antisocial behaviours have more opposite-sex friends in the early years of high school than those who were merely empathetic and followed the rules. But in the latter years empathetic children who keep to the rules beat their more aggressive peers and had more opposite-sex friends.
Past research shows being empathetic helps young people communicate, resolve conflict and engage in social behaviours, all of which helps build close friendships. Others have argued being a giver rather than a taker helps a person succeed socially.
But we wanted to find out why some people who display antisocial behaviour are socially successful. We also wanted to know if this behaviour was equally effective in opposite and same-sex relationships. Perhaps aggression and rule-breaking is attractive to the opposite sex but repellent to the same sex?
Measuring empathy and aggression
We addressed this question in a large, longitudinal study of friendship development in high school. The study assessed 2,803 students in 16 different schools across two different Australian states and five different time points between Years 8 and 12. We used both self-reports and peer-rated measures.
We measured empathy and antisocial behaviour (aggression and rule breaking) using self-reports. Empathy is the capacity to understand others’ emotions. Students were asked to rate statements such as: “When someone is feeling down I can usually understand how they feel,” and “I can often understand how people are feeling even before they tell me.”
Aggression and rule breaking also involved scoring statements of students engaging in arguing, fighting with other children, destroying things and bullying others. The scales in our study have been widely used and validated in former research.
We measured friendships using peer nominations of who youth felt where their close friends.
Our research identified four types of young people:
nice youth (around 36% of all participants, with 70% being female and 30% male) – these young people are high in empathy and avoid hurting others rebels (around 11% of participants, 31% female and 69% male) – these young people hurt others, break the rules and have little empathy nice rebels (around 18% of participants, 67% female and 33% male) – they have the ability to be both empathetic and hurt others nonplayers (around 36% participants, with 28% being female and 72% male) – they use neither empathy nor aggressive strategies.
The nice rebels were the most interesting group. Theory suggests people who exhibit these qualities have an advantage over others because they can use empathy to build social alliances and aggression to become dominant in those alliances.
Nice people win
In Years 8-10 (around 13-15 years old) the nice rebels had more opposite-sex friends than the nice youth. The plain rebels tended to attract fewer opposite-sex friends than both the nice youth and the nice rebels, but these rebels still did better than the nonplayers, who were relatively invisible to the opposite sex.
However, the nonplayers did about as well as both types of rebels in same-sex relationships.
But in Years 11-12 (around 16-17 years old), the nice rebels lost opposite-sex friends and became less popular with the opposite sex than nice youth. The plain rebels also lost friends and became similar to the nonplayers in opposite-sex friendships.
The story gets even better (if you like nice youth). Throughout all of high school, the nice youth had more same-sex friendships than all other groups and higher well-being than both the nice rebels and the rebels.
At first, young people might have seen the nice rebels as charming, fun and powerful. However, over time, they experienced the rebel acting aggressively and, eventually, this disrupted the friendship.
What about mental health?
We also used self-reports to assess children’s well-being. We found the nice rebels and rebels consistently reported lower levels of self-esteem and worse mental health then the nice youth and nonplayers.
We also found important differences between males and females. Females paid a higher price for being in one of the rebellious groups, experiencing worse mental health and self-esteem than their male counterparts. We speculate society may be more rejecting of rebellious females who are aggressive and break the rules.
The study had its limitations. Research is needed to determine what motivates young people to rebel. We also need to better understand why rebels experience lower self-esteem and worse mental health than the nice youth and nonplayers.
But what our research does show is that being nice is not only the ethically right strategy, it is also the most effective. Nice strategies such as taking perspective and giving can help young people build strong social alliances.