By Dr. Joseph Ciarrochi
What sorts of social strategies help teens to win friends? Does being aggressive and breaking rules–being antisocial—sometimes make teens well-liked by their peers? We addressed this question in a large, longitudinal study of friendship development in high school (Grade 8 to 12).
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.
Antisocial Youth (around 11% of participants, 31% female and 69% male) – these young people hurt others, break rules and have little empathy
Nice, antisocial Youth (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.
Who had the most friends?
We found that in Junior high (Grade 8 to 10), the nice antisocial kids tended to have more opposite-sex friends than the nice kids. Thus, their willingness to use aggression payed off. The nonplayers were virtually invisible to the opposite sex.
However, over time, the Nice Antisocial kids lost friends and by senior high it was the Nice kids, not the Antisocials, that had the most opposite-sex friends. The story gets even better (if you like nice kids). Throughout all of high school, the nice kids had more same-sex friendships and higher well-being than any other group.
Why did some young people stop liking the Nice Antisocials? Initially, young people might have seen them as charming, fun , and powerful. They wanted to be their friend. However, over time, they experienced the antisocial youth acting aggressively, and, eventually, this disrupted the friendship. Time is against antisocial kids, because people discover they can’t be trusted.
What about mental health?
We found the nice antisocial and antisocial youth consistently reported lower levels of self-esteem and worse mental health then the nice youth and nonplayers. Perhaps the aggressive, rule breaking behavior of antisocial youth prevents them from forming genuine relationships, which are essential to their well-being.
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.
Maybe being nice is not only the ethically “right” strategy; it is also the most effective strategy. Nice strategies such as taking perspective and giving can help young people build strong social alliances. To succeed in the modern world you need strong alliances. You need to be able to work in teams, make connections, and nurture other people’s talent. You need to be able to call other people when you need help or support. You need other people, and they need you.