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Psychologist receives NSF grant for research on school bullying

April 27, 2009

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass., April 27, 2009 -- The National Science Foundation has announced the award of a grant of $77,092 to Williams College to support the work of Marlene Sandstrom, associate professor of psychology. The title of her research project is "Pluralistic Ignorance and School Bullying: Do Misperceptions of Classroom Norms Contribute to Peer Harassment?" Sandstrom will explore bystander passivity in school bullying.

The results of this research will contribute to a broader understanding of how children balance private attitudes with perceptions of peer attitudes when deciding their own behavior. Results could also affect the content of classroom-based intervention programs.

Anecdotal evidence and observational studies show that other children are present during most acts of bullying, but they rarely try to help the victim. Sandstrom proposes that one explanation for this phenomenon is a misperception of group norms. When children observe an episode of bullying, they look to their peers for cues about how they should react. Children misjudge their peers' failure to help as evidence of their tolerance for bullying, a process known as pluralistic ignorance. Repeated episodes of pluralistic ignorance can solidify a misrepresentation of tolerance and promote future instances of passivity.

Her current project has four goals:
  • to determine whether pluralistic ignorance occurs during instances of school bullying
  • to investigate possible differences in pluralistic ignorance between late elementary school and late middle school students
  • to explore whether the manipulation of children's knowledge about peer attitudes will affect their willingness to help during a bullying episode
  • to determine to the extent to which children's willingness to help is related to changes in perceptions of group norms
Before coming to Williams, Sandstrom served as a clinical fellow in psychology with a subspecialty in community mental health at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. She was also a clinical assistant for the Families and Schools Together Track Project, an intervention program for children at risk for the development of behavioral and social difficulties.

Sandstrom's research interests include childhood peer relationships, peer rejection, and bystander behavior in the school context. Her work has focused on social vulnerability during childhood, such as the ways in which children cope with teasing, ostracism, and victimization at school.

Her work has been published in Child Development, the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, the Journal of Pediatric Psychology, and Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, among others.

She received her B.A. from Yale University, her Ph.D. from Duke University, and completed postdoctoral work in pain management and anxiety disorders at the Duke University Medical Center.
Founded in 1793, Williams College is the second oldest institution of higher learning in Massachusetts. The college's 2,000 students are taught by a faculty noted for the quality of their teaching and research, and the achievement of academic goals includes active participation of students with faculty in their research. Students' educational experience is enriched by the residential campus environment in Williamstown, Mass., which provides a host of opportunities for interaction with one another and with faculty beyond the classroom. Admission decisions are made regardless of a student's financial ability, and the college provides grants and other assistance to meet the demonstrated needs of all who are admitted. To visit the college on the

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