Patterns of conflict in middle and high schools have been the topic of an enormous amount of policy and behavioral intervention, and of political and social concern, following several suicides and cases of "bullying" in American schools. How does conflict become normative for a particular neighborhood, school, or even country, to the extent that it is considered part of the group's climate or culture? Is it possible to intervene to reduce harassment, bullying, aggression and other conflict behaviors among these groups? Previous research by Dr. Elizabeth Levy Paluck (Princeton University) and colleagues used social network analysis to measure patterns of social interaction among group members over time to understand (1) whether particular influential group members are able to alter perceptions of the entire group's social norms about conflict or bullying in positive ways, and (2) whether shifting perceptions of group norms can reduce longstanding patterns of conflict within the group's social network. This work shows that the behavior of certain highly-connected individuals in the group social network provides a salient cue to members of the social network about which behaviors are normative (i.e., typical and desirable). Targeting these individuals' conflict behavior within a social network creates perceptions of anti-conflict norms among individuals who are exposed to them in the network, and these shifts in perceived norms are accompanied by actual reductions in conflict behavior and increases in tolerance and acceptance.
The proposed research tests the next critical question of this research program, specifically whether the mutually reinforcing process of changing norms and behaviors within a social network is responsible for changing enduring behavioral patterns identified as the group's social climate or culture. The research will focus specifically on conflict behaviors in middle school and will follow up on the long term qualitative and behavioral outcomes of a randomized field experiment in a sample of 58 public middle schools. Half of the schools were randomly assigned to an anti-conflict intervention that engages a random subset of all highly connected students in the school's social network. The pragmatic and policy lessons from psychological theories of social norms and behavior rest on psychologists' ability to propose hypotheses and to rigorously test how, across situations and over the long term, a group's social norms might be shifted away from conflict and new patterns of prosocial behaviors of tolerance and social acceptance could persist. This research will provide a novel account of the social mechanisms by which large scale social dynamics change and reproduce norms, and establish behavioral patterns most often identified with climates or culture. The outcome of this work could inform policy and future intervention efforts to reduce harassment, bullying, and other threatening behavior in schools and other group contexts.