When children expect hostility, they react aggressively — a truth that spans cultures and has implications for world peace, according to a new study from Duke University.
"The findings, published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, hold implications for dealing not only with the problem of aggressive behavior in individuals, but also for better understanding of large-scale, long-standing cross-group conflicts such as the Arab-Israeli clash and racial strife in the United States," the researchers said in background material to the study.
Findings point out a "major psychological process that leads a child to commit violence," said Kenneth A. Dodge, director of the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke and the study's lead researcher. "When a child infers that he or she is being threatened by someone else and makes an attribution that the other person is acting with hostile intent, then that child is likely to react with aggression. This study shows that this pattern is universal in every one of the 12 cultural groups studied worldwide."
The researchers followed 1,299 children and their parents in nine countries over four years to reach the conclusion, finding some variation within the 12 cultures in terms of the degree of aggression. The children were age 8 at the start of the study. Participants were from specific cities in China, Colombia, Italy, Jordan, Kenya, the Philippines, Sweden, Thailand and the United States.
"Every year of the study, their level of aggression was measured via interviews with the child and their mother, and on the third year, they were presented with 10 different hypothetical situations involving an 'ambiguous provocation' directed at them by someone. For each situation they were told to guess whether the hypothetical someone intended them harm or not, and then asked to imagine how they’d respond to them," wrote Ed Cara for Medical Daily.
Children who believed the situation arose from a hostile intent were five times more likely to be aggressive than those who saw it as unintentional or merely thoughtless. The researchers also said that cultures with what they called greater "hostile attributional bias," including Zarqa, Jordan, and Naples, Italy, had bigger problems with aggressive children. The opposite was true of Trollhattan, Sweden, and Jinan, China. Culturally, there's less assumption that someone intended harm and, therefore, less aggression among children. The American study subjects were from Durham, North Carolina.
The researchers also found that children who routinely believed hostility was directed toward them became aggressive more often and more severely as they got older.
Children are socialized in different ways, Dodge said in the written statement, adding that the study "points toward the need to change how we socialize our children, to become more benign and more forgiving and less defensive. It will make our children less aggressive and our society more peaceful."
He pointed to the Golden Rule, with a twist, suggesting not only to teach children to "do unto others" as they'd like done to themselves, but also to think about others that way, too.
The Minneapolis, Minnesota-based Gazette-Review offered a bit of its own perspective on the study: "The fact of the matter is that if your culture seems to be getting into trouble more than other groups and into criminal situations, then this study proves that it all comes back to parenting and teaching children that most of the time, people are not being hostile or aggressive toward you," it said. "It is like that old saying, what you put out there comes back to you ten-fold, which means if you are thinking people are coming at you aggressively, you put that vibe out there, and then you will run into that type of situation, and often times these situations can wind up costing you your life."
The study was funded by Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the Fogarty International Center, the National Institute on Drug Abuse and its Senior Science Award and the Intramural Research Program of the National Institutes of Health.
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