Mean girls and bullies may sit at the top of the classroom pecking order in Hollywood, but a new study suggests in real life, kindness is linked to popularity among middle schoolers.
In "Kindness Counts: Prompting Prosocial Behavior in Preadolescents Boosts Peer Acceptance and Well-Being," researchers led by Kristin Layous, a psychologist at the University of California, Riverside, observed 415 students ages 9 to 11 in 19 classrooms in Vancouver, B.C., over four weeks. They began observations in the second half of the school year, when most students knew one another and friendships were more solidified.
At the beginning, students reported on their own life satisfaction, happiness, and positivity, and then marked on a school roster the classmates they would "like to be in school activities [i.e., spend time] with," a gauge researchers found associated with peer acceptance. For the next four weeks, students were asked to either visit three places of interest to them—the mall or a local baseball park, say—or to perform three acts of kindness each week for anyone they knew. Often, these acts were simple, from hugging a stressed-out parent to sharing lunch with another student.
At the end of the trial, students again reported on their own happiness, and were again asked to mark a roster of classmates they considered friends. They found both groups visiting places of interest or doing kind acts were slightly happier and more satisfied by the end of the trial, and in both groups students reported wanting to engage with more classmates. However, the students who had performed kind acts garnered significantly more new friends than those who had visited places; about 1.6 new friends on average, compared with 0.7 for the other group. Students were not more likely to list additional friends based simply on increases in their personal happiness.
These findings add to a more nuanced view of adolescent relationships than the stereotypical hierarchy. They build on other recent studies that find the students most likely to bully are those just below the top rung of the classroom social order—the ones with friends, but more insecure about their social position than the leaders of the pack. It will be interesting to see whether actively engaging students to be kinder in general would help build a better school climate and reduce bullying in particular.