Prosocial and aggressive behavior have long been researched in social status studies, however, the nature of the relationships between these behaviors and social status has remained unclear. Due to the complexity and interdependency of these variables, a latent profile analysis study may to some extent offer a new perspective on these relationships. The current study aimed to identify the naturally existing social status groups in China in early adolescents and to determine whether prosocial and aggressive behavior could co-exist within a social status profile. Furthermore, it aimed to explore the associations between profiles and gender, school attended, self-perceived SES, academic achievement, and psychological wellbeing to further characterize these profiles. Using latent profile analysis, four unique social status profiles were identified, and their prevalence was documented. Moreover, these profiles not only had significantly different social status characteristics, but also different patterns of associations with the above-mentioned variables making it possible to characterize them more fully. As predicted, the study failed to locate a bi-strategic group in the Chinese sample, but it did discover a low social status group that had not been uncovered in the Western literature which is discussed further below.
The study identified approximately 6% of the sample as comprising the high aggressive group. It should be noted that the name of each group is not intended to pejoratively label these students but rather aims to draw attention to their distinct qualities. Peers seldomly identified students in this group as performing prosocial behaviors but always signaled they behaved aggressively. These aggressive students were not well-liked by their peers but were somewhat (higher than the low social status group and same as the average group) popular in their classes. Although aggressive students with a low level of likeability have been found in both variable and person-centered studies, previous studies have been inconsistent about the prevalence of this aggressive popular group: one found under 5% of the sample fitted this description, whereas the other found around 15% fitted it (Hartl et al., 2020
; Berger et al., 2015
). This may come from the different indicator choices as illustrated in the introduction. Other than this, differences in prevalence may be explained by the different levels of cultural endorsement of aggressive behaviors in different countries. Countries which value physical power or emulation would be more likely to have a higher level of tolerance for their adolescents performing this type of behavior (Cillessen and Mayeux, 2004
), which may lead to a higher prevalence of aggressive teenagers.
The low social status profile as characterized in this study does not appear to have been found in previous research. This group, representing around 40% of the sample, was the only group identified with below-average scores on both popularity and likeability, indicating that they were left out by their peers when nominating popular and likeable students. The average group also contained approximately 40% of the sample and was also characterized by the second-highest level of prosocial behavior, the second-lowest level of aggression, and an average level of social status. Thus, the low social status and average groups significantly differed in their aggression, prosociality, and social status levels and had significantly different associations with all predictors and outcomes, further discussed below. Therefore, there is no doubt that these two groups are distinct, at least in this sample. However, previous latent profile analysis studies have failed to discover this low social status group and instead have classified around 65–75% of their samples in the average group. It is therefore plausible that previous studies might have aggregated these two groups within the average group, but more research is needed to validate this speculation.
This newly found low social status group resonates with the “neglected group”, which has been categorized in sociometric status studies as a group of children with low visibility who are neither liked nor disliked by their peers, when deploying a statistical criterion of the nominated social preference and social impact (van der Wilt et al., 2018
). The current study could not rule out the possibility that low social status students were also not disliked by their peers as no data on disliked children were collected due to ethical concerns. It is conceivable that the low social status group may contain some neglected students. However, several other characteristics would suggest that the low social status group is different from the neglected group. First, the neglected group has been found to be less aggressive than the average group (van der Wilt et al., 2018
) whereas low social status students in this study had a significantly higher degree of aggression than those in the average group. Second, some researchers have indicated that the advent of the neglected group may be due to the use of a limited nomination procedure which might boost the number of children in this group (Terry, 2000
). On average, the neglected group was found to encompass 9% of the population. However, the present study applied an unlimited nomination technique and found a particular predominance of students (40%) in this specific group. Third, previous sociometric status studies suggested that the neglected group was not at risk of developing negative outcomes due to its unstableness and similarity to the average group. However, this study uncovered the low social status group performed as a moderate version of the high aggressive group and is at high risk of having low wellbeing and low academic achievement; details will be illustrated in the below section. Thus, it is possible that the low social status group and the neglected group may share some nuanced similarities but overall the evidence suggests they are two distinct groups.
If the low social status group is unique in Chinese schools, the typical class size in China might be an alternative explanation to account for its presence. The class sizes and student-faculty ratio in Chinese junior high schools are much larger than in Western middle schools.
The average class size in the two participating public schools was 47. Such a large class size makes it difficult for teachers to track each student’s development and give them enough attention (Beattie and Thiele, 2016
). If those students who develop slowly in their studies and social skills are not supported by their teachers promptly, they may be considered unvalued or unattractive to study or associate with by their peers and may gradually develop maladjusted strategies to cope with this situation. Ultimately, these quiet and perhaps a little reserved students may not have been given adequate attention, and thus formed this low social status group. More investigation to scrutinize this group is needed.
Last, the high prosocial-high social status group encompassed around 13% of the sample and was underlined by its remarkably high prosocial performance, low aggression, and unanimous acceptance and social dominance. All prosocial groups in previous studies, alongside the current study, confirmed this group of adolescents had the highest likeability among their peers. However, in contrast to Western studies, the high prosocial group in China in this study also had the highest popularity. When the prosocial group was compared with the average group, this indicated the absence of aggressive behaviors alone is insufficient to achieve full-scale (both likeability and popularity) high social status; rather it must be accompanied by a high level of prosocial behaviors. As Chinese students grow older, so does their intense academic burden. Moral courses that are not included in the college entrance examination often give way to more “important” courses, such as Mathematics, Science, or Chinese. These results should encourage teachers to incorporate prosocial education into their classrooms and could serve as a reminder of the need to increase the weighting of prosocial education in the curriculum in Chinese schools.
Finally, the bi-strategic group was not found in the present study as no profile contained both prosocial and aggressive behavior above the sample mean. A supplementary analysis only deploying the more limited profile indicators of a key previous study (e.g., only popularity, aggressive behavior, and prosocial behavior, Hartl et al., 2020
) to aid comparability, was able to confirm the average popular, prosocial popular, and aggressive popular group, but still failed to reveal a bi-strategic popular group. Thus, there was not a group of students in this sample who performed both prosocial and aggressive behavior. Like the Master said, ‘If the will be set on virtue, there will be no practice of wickedness.’ (Confucius and Legge, 2008
). Confucianism, as the foundation for Chinese culture, places great emphasis on the importance of maintaining group wellbeing and harmony, whereas the self-interested nature of aggressive behaviors could potentially harm group stability and lead to individuals becoming loathed and rejected (Zhang et al., 2020
), and this may lead Chinese students to be less likely to perform both prosocial and aggressive behavior. Thus, the failure to discover a bi-strategic group may not result from choosing different profiles’ indicators but primarily be attributed to cultural differences. This is the first study to test the bi-strategic group in a collectivist context using a person-centered approach, thus further investigation is still needed.
As theoretically hypothesized in resource control theory, this study was consistent with previous studies in which boys outnumbered girls in the aggressive group (Hartl et al., 2020
). Moreover, compared with girls, boys were more likely to be in the aggressive group than in the prosocial, low social status, or average groups. When using the average group as the reference group, the results indicated that boys were more likely to fall into the low social status group than girls. As the low social status and aggressive groups were associated with the lowest psychological wellbeing and academic achievement, this finding suggests boys are more vulnerable to falling into the two more maladaptive groups. The findings echo the literature on boy’s low achievement (Yu et al., 2020
). Thus, future research could explore the cause with the aim of understanding how this disadvantageous development can be prevented.
Private schools in China generally require higher tuition than public schools to maintain better school facilities which explained why school type and subjective social status shared the same pattern of predicting the distribution of profile membership. The results revealed a higher subjective social status or attending a private school predicted an increased likelihood of being in the average and prosocial groups, the two more adaptive profiles among the four profiles. Given subjective SES is a medium-to-strong factor which could potentially affect one’s psychological wellbeing (Quon and McGrath, 2015
), prosocial behavior (Cowell et al., 2017
), and academic achievement (Sirin 2005
), it is not surprising that students in the prosocial group had the highest academic achievement and psychological wellbeing. This aligns with numerous previous findings, which showed that prosocial behaviors predict later academic achievement and happiness (Park et al., 2017
; Diener and Seligman, 2002
). Moreover, previous latent profile analysis studies found the prosocial popular profile predicted the lowest level of negative externalizing behaviors (Hartl et al., 2020
), and a social emotional-prosocial profile is associated with the highest academic achievement (Collie et al., 2019
). Again, prosocial behavior seems a strong indicator of academic achievement and wellbeing, which is testified in both variable-centered and person-centered studies.
However, it is also important to highlight that there is no need to encourage all students to become prosocial group students, particularly if they are average students who are satisfied with their standing. Compared with the prosocial group, the average group had a significantly lower score on academic performance but showed no difference in psychological wellbeing. A study found the relationship between both dimensions of social status and social contentment is nonlinear (Ferguson and Ryan, 2019
), which may explain this outcome. Understandably, to maintain high social status, these students need to make a considerable investment of effort and monitoring, which could undermine their psychological wellbeing (Allen et al., 2005
). This was also confirmed in previous findings where the prosocial popular group was not superior in terms of their level of anger and disruptiveness than the average group (Hartl et al., 2020
). Thus, the finding suggested that although prosocialness is beneficial to both performers and receivers (Weinstein and Ryan, 2010
), there is no need to spur all students to become perfectly behaved students in terms of prosocial acts. Approaches which either emphasize tough instruction or very minimal intervention are both dogmatic. Instead, teachers should guide students based on their individual needs. Thus, cultivating adolescents to achieve a balanced amount of prosocialness could be a possible adjustment that teachers can implement in their classes.
It should be noted that the high aggressive and the low social status groups had the lowest academic achievement and psychological wellbeing. Until now, research has been unclear about whether aggression has the same adaptive functioning as prosocial behaviors, or whether its positive effects come from the association with being recognized among peers (Berger et al., 2015
). Although the high aggressive students in this study were popular to a certain extent, as this was also associated with the lowest academic achievement and wellbeing, it is hard to believe that aggression is adaptive in a Chinese context. The high aggressive group has long received extensive attention; thus, the study highlights the particular need to pay greater attention to low social status adolescents as they also share the same vulnerability as the aggressive group and even had a lower level of popularity. It is worth bearing in mind that the low social status group in this study is a mild version of the aggressive popular group since the youth in this group also had low prosociality (the second lowest) and high aggressiveness (the second highest). According to social learning theory (Hoorn et al., 2016
), it is possible that some of these students who already have a propensity towards aggression, would increase their aggressiveness, learning from their aggressive popular peers, to become more popular. Thus, it matters that teachers recognize such students and acknowledge their needs to facilitate them in preventing such maladaptive behavioral development.
Although this study contributes knowledge of social status profiles and their associations with gender, socioeconomic status, school attended, academic achievement, and wellbeing, several limitations could be addressed in future research. First, several other aspects of the profiles’ indicators were not included in this study. For example, the functions of aggression (proactive and reactive) and verbal aggression were not considered. Researchers have found that popularity has opposite correlations with proactive and reactive aggression (Stoltz et al., 2016
). Moreover, likeability and popularity are the two most dominant forms of youth’s high social status (Cillessen and Rose, 2005
), but a new suggested form, admiration, has been less well studied (Zhang et al., 2018
). Therefore, future research could explore how including the aforementioned indicators might result in slightly differing social status profiles.
Furthermore, it is important to recognize certain methodological limitations. First, the data were collected only through peer nomination techniques. A future study could consider integrating both self- and teacher-reported data to testify the outcomes. Second, this study is culturally specific as it only pertains to Chinese middle schoolers, but the findings are positioned in relation to resource control theory making it comparable with previous studies. Thirdly, the cross-sectional nature of the data could account for some of the differences found compared with previous longitudinal work. A longitudinal study may also be able to shed light on the causal relationships between social status profiles and subsequent academic achievement and wellbeing, which cannot be determined in this study.