Harassment is an ever-increasing problem in middle and high schools. Students are victimized through verbal, physical, and emotional acts of abuse. Harassment is based on factors that range from the type of clothing a student wears to his or her ethnicity, race, or sexual orientation. Regardless of the circumstances that surround harassment, stopping it has become one of the primary goals of educators in recent years. Interventions have been devised to promote tolerance and encourage acceptance. They have produced minimal results, however. Elizabeth Levy Paluck of the Department of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton University theorized that perhaps approaching this problem with a focus on social norms would be more effective.
Societal groups develop socially acceptable beliefs that influence every member of the group. The same is true in high schools. Students tend to accept negative behavior if their peers, especially influential peers, accept and endorse it too. Paluck wanted to see if students would be more likely to admonish bullying through social avenues than through administrative efforts. For her study, Paluck recruited a number of high school students to be social referents conveying their intolerance for bullying. The referents and the rest of the school’s students attended an assembly discouraging bullying at the beginning of the year, and were repeatedly reminded about the message for the remainder of the school year. The referents were instructed to continually relay the anti-bullying message and encouraged other students to purchase wrist bands supporting their cause.
At the end of the year, Paluck evaluated the climate of the school and found that the students who came in repeated social contact with the referents had much less tolerance for bullying behavior and discrimination than those who did not. Specifically, it was not the students who shared classes, but rather those who saw the referents socially and interacted with them outside of the academic arena, that were more heavily influenced by their anti-bullying beliefs. Additionally, the social referents had a much more significant impact on creating an anti-bullying climate than the assembly did. In this era of ever-increasing avenues of bullying, such as social media and text messaging, changing attitudes in the swiftest way possible is imperative. “To shift an entire school’s normative climate and pattern of behavior, more social referents may need to demonstrate behavioral changes such as those prompted by the intervention program,” Paluck said.
Paluck, E. L., Shepherd, H. (2012). The salience of social referents: A field experiment on collective norms and harassment behavior in a school social network. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0030015
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