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Reserved Children More Likely to Be Violent than Their Outgoing Peers

Race, Gender, and Family Income Have Little Effect

According to a study by researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Brandeis University, one of the greatest predictors of violence and aggression in children is their level of inhibition or social withdrawal. The study, which was funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, was presented at the Society for Research in Child Development's biannual conference and the European Conference of Developmental Psychology.

HGSE's Kurt Fischer and Brandeis' Malcolm Watson, the study's co-investigators, tracked 440 children and adolescents over seven years to determine what causes children to become aggressive and violent. They found that two characteristics strongly predict the development of aggression. Violence in the home, including physical parental punishment, was the strongest predictor of aggression in the child.

While that indicator already is well-known, the second finding was unexpected: inhibited temperament was the second strongest predictor of aggression and violence in children. "Inhibition stood alone as the one personality characteristic that predicted aggression, which suggests possible connections with the isolated, alienated children who have committed school attacks," says Fischer.

Fischer and Watson also expected to find that demographic and socio-economic factors such as race, ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic status would lead to aggression, as earlier studies had indicated; instead, they found that these factors had little influence in whether or not a child became violent later in life. "The standard stuff in the literature suggests that poor kids, kids from discriminated-against groups, and boys are more likely to be aggressive, but our findings don't support this," adds Fischer.

"We were startled with the results because many people believed that high inhibition would accompany low aggression," says Watson. "We found just the opposite. The more inhibited kids are, the more likely they are to be aggressive." Inhibited children in this study were characterized as socially withdrawn, uncomfortable or distressed in new situations, and anxious about making new friends or trying new activities. Examples of aggressive behavior included fighting and lashing out at their peers both physically and verbally, insulting them, hitting and pushing them, attacking them with weapons, and, in extreme cases, criminal aggression, including murder.

The researchers advise parents, teachers, and other caregivers not to assume children and adolescents are fine just because they are not unruly or rebellious. "In schools, teachers tend to 'oil the squeaky wheel,' attending to outspoken trouble makers," adds Watson, "but quiet students may be having trouble adjusting as well." Fischer and Watson recommend that teachers, school counselors, and parents attend to students who seem withdrawn, offering them opportunities to connect through clubs, study groups, and other social and academic outlets.

This study was conducted over seven years on a group of 440 children and adolescents from Springfield, Massachusetts, which is socioeconomically and racially similar to many other areas of the country and can be deemed a "representative" sample. The children, who ranged in age from 7 to 13 years when the study began, come from a diverse set of socio-economic backgrounds. An equal number of white, African-American, and Latino boys and girls were chosen to participate. Data were gathered through in-depth interviews with the children and their mothers.

About the Researchers

Kurt Fischer is the Charles Bigelow Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an expert on cognitive and emotional development and directs the school's Mind, Brain, and Education program. Malcolm Watson is a professor of psychology at Brandeis University, where he studies aggression in children and adolescents, art and aesthetic concepts in children, and social adjustment as it relates to fantasy play and family conflicts.

For More Information

Contact HGSE Media Relations Officer Margaret R. Haas at 617-496-1884 or


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