Community

Impact brings you compelling stories, inspiring research, and big ideas from ACU. It's about the impact we’re having on our communities, and our Mission in action. It’s a practical resource for career, life and study.

At ACU it’s education, but not as you know it. We stand up for people in need, and causes that matter.

If you have a story idea or just want to say hello, do contact us.

Copyright@ Australian Catholic University 1998-2019 | ABN 15 050 192 660 CRICOS Reg: 00004G

nice kids

Why nice kids finish first in high school


While many teenagers aspire to rebel status and even turn to aggressive behavior to dominate their peers, new research has shown that it’s the nice kids who will ultimately rule the school.

ACU’s Professor Joseph Ciarrochi from the Institute for Positive Psychology and Education was the lead researcher for The upsides and downsides of the dark side study. He and his team examined the social strategies of almost 3,000 high schoolers to discover why the aggressive rule breakers – or rebels – are so popular, and where this leaves the nice kids.

“In our research, we identified four types of young people,” Professor Ciarrochi explained. “There are ‘Nice youth’, who show a lot of empathy and try to avoid hurting people, and there are ‘Rebels’ who show little empathy and break the rules. There are also ‘Nice rebels’, who have the ability to be both empathetic and hurt others, and the fourth group are the ‘Nonplayers’. These are the kids who don’t use empathy or aggressive strategies.”

 

IE0558_Why-nice-kids-finish-first-in-high-school_full-bleed-2

The rise and fall of rebels

For Professor Ciarrochi, the popularity of the rebels was somewhat surprising.

“Aggressive behavior is designed to hurt people, so you’d think these kids wouldn’t have any advantages in the friendship stakes because this kind of behavior is designed to push people away,” he said. “But there is another side to this.

“If you don’t think of aggression as a bad thing necessarily, it could be seen as a way of becoming dominant and powerful, and then maybe these kids become more appealing in their own way. They’re seen as fun, strong and charming, making other young people more inclined to think, ‘I want to join their group.’”

 

IE0557_Why-nice-kids-finish-first-in-high-school_full-bleed-1

However, Professor Ciarrochi emphasies that the popularity of the rebels did not endure through to year 12.

“By showing aggression and breaking the rules, there were some benefits for the rebels, but it didn’t last, especially when it came to attracting the opposite sex,” he said. “In the long-term, we found that young people wised up. If you’re friends with a bully, it’s only a matter of time until they bully you too, causing the friendship to disintegrate.”

Nice kids make their move

Once popularity and relationships start to shift, enter the nice kids.

“This group start out disadvantaged because they’re not seen as cool, dominant or even that noticeable in the beginning,” said Professor Ciarrochi.

“But high school is a marathon, not a sprint! Pro-social strategies are the winning strategies in the end because this is how teenagers build lasting alliances.

"Even though being kind and supportive comes with an initial cost, the nice kids are able to build – and maintain – longer lasting friendships, whereas the nice rebels in particular tend to lose them.”

Professor Ciarrochi does point out that just because some kids fit into his study’s ‘nice’ category, it doesn’t mean they’re not assertive.

“Everyone is scared when high school starts, but you can be nice and assertive. However, an assertive kid is not trying to intentionally hurt someone else. So, while these kids are still capable of hurting their peers, it’s just not their intention. This is different to the rebels who demonstrate aggressive, anti-social behaviours. Often they are intentionally hurting others.”

IE0556_Why-nice-kids-finish-first-in-high-school_body-width-1

Mental health matters

By comparing the young people’s mental health within the different groups, Professor Ciarrochi’s study found the nice rebels and rebels reported lower self-esteem and worse mental health than the nice kids and the nonplayers.

“We also found that it was the females who paid a higher price for being in one of the rebellious groups. They reported worse mental health and self-esteem compared to their male counterparts,” he said.

“We were wondering if society in general is more critical of rebellious females who show aggression and break the rules.

“Ultimately, what our research does show is that being nice is not only the ethically right strategy, it is also the most effective. Nice strategies such as taking perspective and giving can help young people build strong social alliances.”

Professor Joseph Ciarrochi is a researcher with the Institute of Positive Psychology and Education at Australian Catholic University (ACU).  His research interests include identifying character strengths that promote social, emotional, physical wellbeing and performance, and contextual behavioural science.

 

Related stories

Impact brings you compelling stories, inspiring research, and big ideas from ACU. It's about the impact we’re having on our communities, and our Mission in action. It’s a practical resource for career, life and study.

At ACU it’s education, but not as you know it. We stand up for people in need, and causes that matter.

If you have a story idea or just want to say hello, do contact us.

Copyright@ Australian Catholic University 1998-2019 | ABN 15 050 192 660 CRICOS Reg: 00004G