As previously noted, aggression is not exclusively a physical act. Other forms of aggression include covert acts that harm others through social exclusion, public humiliation and personal rejection. These include such acts as excluding others from social groups, spreading hurtful rumors to encourage rejection and humiliation, and threatening to tell personal secrets as a means of controlling peers. Collectively, these behaviors have been termed social or relational aggression. Research over the past decade has revealed that girls engage in at least equal, or perhaps even higher levels of relational aggression than do boys (e.g., Crick & Grotpeter, 1995
). Relational aggression can be reliably detected as early as preschool and children who engage in it are more likely to suffer rejection from their peers and are more likely to affiliate with deviant peers who also engage in relational aggression (Werner & Crick, 2004
How serious is social aggression? The common view is that while social aggression is unpleasant and ill-mannered, acts of physical aggression are far more damaging –‘sticks and stones will hurt my bones, but words can never hurt me’. Interestingly, studies show that girls suffer more than boys when they are the targets of these acts and they suffer significantly: victimization through social aggression is related to depression, loneliness and low self-esteem (Prinstein, Boergers, Vernberg, 2001
). For girls in high risk contexts, social aggression may be a precursor to physical aggression or may play an important role in shaping the context in which more serious acts of aggression occur. In our research (e.g., Odgers & Moretti, 2002
), we found social and physical acts of aggression were highly correlated in a highrisk population of girls. Anecdotally, these girls reported that they often became involved (as both perpetrators and victims) in highly socially aggressive peer groups, where rumors of sexual impropriety and fast changing loyalties moved quickly, eventually escalating to acts of physical aggression. Girls differed in how well they fared in these complex social interactions. Some emerged at the top of the social ladder and were admired yet feared by their peers. Others found themselves more frequently in the victim role. The fact that social aggression can have social ‘payoffs’ for some girls has garnered support from recent studies. For example, Cillessen and Mayeux (2004)
found that young adolescents who were relationally aggressive to others held high social prominence, although they were not well liked by their peers. This was particularly true for girls.
In sum, social and relational forms of aggression are more common in girls than are physical acts. Although social aggression does not produce broken bones or bruises, the effects on victims are not to be underestimated. Furthermore, in the same way that high physical aggression is an indicator of poor adjustment in males, high social aggression is linked to increased risk for peer rejection and deviant peer affiliation in girls. Such behavior may temporarily secure high social status, but because it also engenders dislike by peers, eventually it is likely to result in social rejection.