A Penchant For Revenge Can Make It Tough To Find A Friend

March 04, 1999

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Making friends is a natural thing for many kids. For others, it's not.

And for a small but significant minority, the way they handle even minor conflicts within a friendship is a strong predictor that their friendships will be few, say two University of Illinois researchers.

For these kids, revenge is often a very strong goal in their reaction to even everyday conflicts with kids they claim as friends, according to a study by Amanda Rose, a doctoral candidate in psychology, and Steven Asher, a professor of educational psychology and of psychology. Finding out why, they say, could be a key to helping these kids find the friendships they're missing and avoid problems later in life.

In a paper published in the January issue of the journal Developmental Psychology, Rose and Asher described research involving 696 fourth- and fifth-graders in two Midwestern school districts. In a survey administered in the classroom, each child was asked to name his or her best friend and to answer questions related to the quality of that friendship.

They also were asked how likely it was that they would react in each of various ways to 30 hypothetical situations involving minor conflicts with a friend -- like a disagreement over who should pick a game to play, or whether to let the friend help finish a puzzle.

In evaluating the results of the study, Rose said, she and Asher were struck by the tendency toward revenge in about 6 percent of the subjects. "We were surprised at the degree to which some children would say in response to every one of these really mild disagreements that they wanted to get back at their friend." And in trying to accomplish that goal, they often indicated that they would respond in a very hostile way, such as threatening to end the friendship.

"The reason this leapt out at us is because we worry about these children," Rose said. "We know, from our study, that these children have poorer friendships. But we also have to wonder what's going to become of them."

"Of all the goals we measured that kids might have when a conflict arises," Asher said, "the goal that was most predictive of what their friendship situation was like in real life was this goal of seeking to get back at the other person you have to raise the question of what would lead a child to respond to a fairly normative, everyday conflict as if it were a major betrayal."

Asher has been researching children's peer relationships for 25 years, through studies with students and colleagues on peer acceptance, social skills training, loneliness and friendship. The work with Rose grew out of a list of 10 "social tasks of friendship" he and research colleagues Jeffrey Parker and Diane Walker proposed several years ago. Other recent studies by Asher and his students also point to the potentially damaging effect that seeking revenge has on children's peer relationships.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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