In adolescence, there is a consistent and robust association between popularity and aggression (Cillessen and Mayeux 2004
). Paradoxically, there is also emerging evidence that popular youth are not just perpetrators but are also victims of aggression (e.g., Dawes and Malamut 2018
). However, due to a dearth of longitudinal studies, many questions still remain regarding the experiences of high-status victims. The purpose of the current study was to address two distinct but related questions regarding this phenomenon. The first goal was to understand whether popular youth are more likely to experience specific subtypes of indirect victimization (i.e., reputational victimization, exclusion) over time. The second goal was to examine how popular youth’s own perceptions of being victimized are related to subsequent indirect aggression.
Popularity and Victimization
High levels of popularity are typically thought of as protective against victimization, as popularity is an indicator of social success. Nevertheless, there are several explanations for why popular youth may be targeted by peers (see Dawes and Malamut 2018
for a review). Through the lens of evolutionary psychology and social dominance perspectives, the function of aggression is to gain power and access to valued resources, and to improve one’s position in the social hierarchy (e.g., Volk et al. 2012
). Importantly, resources that are valued in adolescence (e.g., social centrality; Dawes and Malamut 2018
) are also finite, and not everyone in the peer group can reach the top of the social hierarchy. Insofar as youth use aggression to gain social rewards and/or to climb the social ladder, perpetrators may choose to target popular peers who currently have access to the desired resources and social position (i.e., instrumental targeting: Faris and Felmlee 2014
). Moreover, popular youth may be targeted by other popular peers who see the target as potential social competition (e.g., Andrews et al. 2017
Subtypes of Victimization
Successfully identifying popular victims is, in part, dependent on the type of victimization being measured. For example, it may be difficult to identify popular victims with peer-reports of who is bullied or picked on because popular youth, due to their social success, likely do not have a reputation as youth who are often bullied. Furthermore, given that popular adolescents have an assortment of social resources and are dominant in the peer group, youth may be more likely to use some forms of aggression (e.g., covert or “behind-the-back” aggression) against popular peers than others to avoid the risk of a direct confrontation (Dawes and Malamut 2018
). Indeed, in a review of the extant literature examining high-status victims, Dawes and Malamut (2018
) found less support that popularity was linked to victimization via overt or direct forms of aggression. Instead, popular youth were more likely to be targeted with indirect or relational aggression. As such, the present study will focus on indirect forms of aggression and victimization.
It is important to note that there are ongoing debates over how to refer to nonphysical aggression that may involve covert behaviors or manipulation of peer relationships to hurt the victim (Voulgaridou and Kokkinos 2015
). This type of aggression has been referred to as indirect aggression (Björkqvist et al. 1992
), relational aggression (Crick and Grotpeter 1995
), and social aggression (Underwood et al. 2001
). However, in a comprehensive review, Archer and Coyne (2005
) found relatively few conceptual or empirical differences between indirect aggression, relational aggression, and social aggression. Consistent with their recommendation, the current study refers to these behaviors as indirect aggression/victimization.
Indirect victimization is often treated as a homogenous entity in the extant literature, despite support that subtypes of indirect victimization occur at different rates and are differentially related to other characteristics (e.g., Closson et al. 2017
; Prinstein and Cillessen 2003
). For example, a typical assumption is that the same youth who are the victims of rumors or disparaging gossip (i.e., reputational victimization) are also likely to experience exclusion. However, there are several reasons why high levels of popularity may be associated with reputational victimization, but not exclusion. A key feature of gossip or rumor spreading is that the perpetrator is able to easily conceal his/her identity (Xie et al. 2005
). Whereas some peers may hesitate to aggress against a popular peer out of fear of retaliation, reputational aggression can be a low-risk way of damaging a social competitor’s social standing (Prinstein and Cillessen 2003
). On the other hand, it is likely harder to successfully exclude popular peers from activities, given their social resources and centrality in the peer group. It is important to note that popular youth may still be excluded from activities (e.g., within their friendships: Closson and Watanabe 2018
); however, it may be unbeknownst to the broader peer group. Due to popular youth’s social success and centrality in the peer group, their classmates may be unlikely to view them as excluded or neglected.
Indeed, there is some evidence of positive, concurrent associations between popularity and reputational victimization, but less support for positive links between popularity and experiences of exclusion (Closson et al. 2017
). Yet, measures of reputational victimization are often combined with measures of exclusion, despite that these forms of aggression serve different functions and have unique associations with popularity (Prinstein and Cillessen 2003
). Thus, combining measures of reputational victimization and exclusion may make it difficult to identify victims with high levels of popularity, as any positive association between popularity and reputational victimization may be suppressed by including exclusion. Moreover, despite support of concurrent associations between popularity and reputational victimization, prospective relations have not been studied. Therefore, it is still unclear whether popularity may actually be a risk factor for certain types of victimization.
Both high and low popularity may be risk factors for reputational victimization. Reputational aggression can be used to target a high-status peer (e.g., social competition) or a low-status peer (e.g., choosing an easy target; Malamut et al. 2018
). Consistent with past research, a curvilinear association was expected between popularity and reputational victimization (Prinstein and Cillessen 2003
). High (and low) levels of popularity were expected to be associated with high levels of reputational victimization over time, as youth may use this form of aggression in attempts to damage popular youth’s social standing or reputation, or against low-status youth to establish social norms (e.g., (non)acceptable behaviors; Prinstein and Cillessen 2003
). On the other hand, there are aspects of popularity (e.g., social resources, centrality) that should generally be protective against other types of aggression, such as being excluded or neglected. Therefore, high popularity was expected to be negatively associated with being excluded over time.
Victimization, Popularity, and Aggression
Not only may popular youth be at elevated risk for certain types of victimization, but their experiences being victimized likely also contributes to a cycle of aggression in the peer group. Victimization by peers is a risk factor for future aggression (e.g., Cooley et al. 2017
). Youth who have experienced victimization may be at elevated risk for aggression, either in retaliation or to defend themselves against more victimization (e.g., Yeung and Leadbeater 2007
). The understudied association between victimization and popularity could be related to this effect, such that popular youth react to their (perceived) mistreatment by peers. That is, popular adolescents, who already enjoy the benefits of social status (e.g., social resources and visibility), may be particularly sensitive to challenges to their social standing (i.e., victimization), and subsequently engage in behaviors intended to maintain status (e.g., aggression).
Indeed, Faris and Felmlee (2014
) found that the association between victimization and adverse outcomes (e.g., anxiety, depression, anger) was magnified for socially central adolescents, and speculated that this was because these adolescents had “more to lose” (e.g., prominence and social resources). Moreover, Ferguson et al. (2016
) found some support that the bidirectional association between victimization and aggression was moderated by social status. They found that popular girls who were victimized became more aggressive 7 months later. Taken together, these findings support that the association between victimization and aggression may be stronger for popular youth than their less popular peers, as popular youth may become more aggressive in an attempt to protect their status.
Therefore, in addition to examining main effect relations between victimization and popularity, the current study also considered the potential for the overlap of victimization and popularity to have a role in risk for future perpetration of aggression. Whereas Ferguson et al. 2016
used peer nominations to assess victimization, self-perceived victimization is likely particularly pertinent for subsequent aggression, especially when an adolescent is popular. There are several reasons to expect different associations for self- and peer-reported victimization. If elevated aggression is a potential consequence of victimization due to retaliation or a desire to protect oneself from future victimization (e.g., Yeung and Leadbeater 2007
), then this is likely driven by youth perceiving themselves as victimized or threatened. That is, if they do not see themselves as victimized, then there is no reason to retaliate or defend themselves. Therefore, youth’s feelings of having their status threatened or being victimized (i.e., self-reported victimization) was expected to impact future aggression, especially for popular youth.
Specifically, self-reported victimization was expected to predict increases in aggression at high levels of popularity. However, given previous findings (e.g., Ferguson et al. 2016
), peer-reports of victimization were also included as a comparison. Furthermore, it is important to consider both self- and peer-reports of victimization given past research demonstrating that the associations of victimization differ between informants (e.g., Scholte et al. 2013
Aggression can be used to target a potential social competitor or, conversely, to demonstrate one’s dominance by picking on a weaker peer (e.g., Volk et al. 2014
). As such, adolescents who are high in popularity but feel threatened (via victimization) could try to get revenge on their aggressor or could re-establish their dominance by targeting a weak classmate. Whereas reputational victimization and exclusion were expected to be differently associated with popularity, there were no expected differences regarding popularity and the use of reputational aggression versus exclusion toward others. In fact, youth who are popular often use both forms of aggression against their peers (Prinstein and Cillessen 2003
). Closson and Hymel (2016
) found popular adolescents, as compared to unpopular youth, used higher levels of indirect aggression and direct aggression against their peers. Unlike their peers with less power, youth with elevated popularity have the social resources and support to enact any form of aggression towards their classmates. As there were not any a priori hypotheses to expect self-perceived victimization to be differentially related to different forms of indirect aggression, the current study examined overall levels of indirect aggression.