Story highlights

Students don't really take their cues for how to behave from authority figures, but their peers

A study "seeded" students at a school with anti-conflict messages and instructed them to spread those messages to their peers

For all of the efforts schools put into reducing bullying, there’s actually a dearth of rigorous evidence about what makes for effective anti-bullying intervention. The classic approach — pile kids into an auditorium and lecture them on the dangers of bullying, perhaps including a sad story about its effects along the way — doesn’t appear to really work.

Some researchers believe that the reason it doesn’t work is that students, like people in general, don’t really take their cues for how to behave from authority figures — they take them from their peers. If students think their peers enjoy bullying, or at least aren’t opposed to it, they’ll be more likely to not just engage in bullying themselves, but also to fail to intervene when they see other people doing it.

A trio of researchers decided to target this dynamic in a big, impressive new study of 56 middle schools in New Jersey. The results, published Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggest their approach paid off. If subsequent research further bolsters what they found, it could forever change how schools handle bullying and other forms of conflict among their students.

Related: Exercise might mitigate the effects of bullying

The study, which involved 24,191 students in total, was conducted by Elizabeth Levy Paluck of Princeton, Hana Shepherd of Rutgers, and Peter M. Aronow of Yale. They sought to find out what would happen if they “seeded” students at a school with anti-conflict messages and instructed them to spread those messages to their peers.

“We wanted the message to come from the students themselves because of our hope that these students would change social norms of conflict,” said Paluck in an email. “Students figure out the social norms of their school, we hypothesized, by observing what other students think and do. If other students are just parroting adults, this isn’t going to be a very strong signal of what they actually think. Thus, we wanted the anti-conflict messages to be sincere, to mean something to the students.”

Specifically, Paluck and her colleagues were curious about whether so-called “social referents” in a given school’s social networks — students in the top 10 percent in their total number of connections to other students (we’ll get to how this was defined in a bit) — would be more effective at spreading new, gentler social norms and reducing conflict. The idea is that these kids are the “influencers,” to borrow the Silicon Valley buzzword, the ones everyone else looks to for their social-norm cues. It’s these kids, not the principal or the random outside speaker up onstage at an anti-bullying event, who students look to for their guidance about what’s acceptable within their community.

The first step was for the researchers to map the schools’ networks. To do so, they gave every student at every school a full roster of that school’s student body, and asked them to “nominate up to 10 students at their school whom they chose to spend time with in the last few weeks, either in school, out of school, or online.” This procedure differed in important ways from other established methods of mapping social networks, which “ask respondents to nominate popular people or to list their friends.”

That’s because the researchers weren’t interested in which students were perceived as popular, or as everyone’s friend — rather, they wanted to know who was actually in a position to transmit social norms via direct interaction. (For simplicity’s sake, I’m blending terms together just a bit. There isn’t perfect overlap between popularity and degree of social connectedness, nor between conflict and bullying, but there is a fair amount of it. So even though this study is technically about an anti-conflict intervention, the researchers do see it as targeting bullying in important ways, and they reference bullying in the article.)

Once the researchers had this data, it allowed them to make the obligatory cool graphs of each school’s social network.

There’s a video of the graphs for all the schools here. The blue nodes are the social referents — students in the top 10 percent in terms of how many other students listed them as someone they spend time with.

Related: Bullying leaves an imprint on the brain

During that same survey, students were also asked “a battery of social norms questions regarding conflict behaviors, specifically students’ estimate of descriptive norms (how many students at the school participate in various forms of conflict), and prescriptive norms (how many students at the school think it is desirable to participate in various forms of conflict).” At the end of the study, they’d be asked the same questions, allowing researchers to track changes in attitudes.

Then came the meat of the intervention. Paluck and her colleagues randomly selected a group of students at half of the schools — the other half was the control group — to serve as “seeds” in transmitting anti-conflict social norms to the rest of their classmates.

The process was designed in a very specific way:

During the anticonflict intervention, a trained research assistant met with the seed group every other week to help seed students identify common conflict behaviors at their school, so that the intervention could address the conflicts specific to each school. Seed students were then encouraged to become the public face of opposition to these types of conflict. For example, seed groups at each school compiled a list of conflict behaviors they could address, created hashtag slogans about those behaviors, and turned the slogans into online and physical posters.

The seed students’ photos were posted next to the slogan to create an association between the anticonflict statement and each seed student’s identity. In another activity, seed students gave an orange wristband with the intervention logo (a tree) as a reward to students who were observed engaging in friendly or conflict-mitigating behaviors (over 2,500 wristbands were distributed and tracked).

This intervention model can be likened to a grassroots campaign in which the seed students took the lead and customized the intervention to address the problems they noted at their school. Notably, it lacked an educational or persuasive unit regarding adult-defined problems at their school.

The open-ended nature of this intervention is, from the researchers’ perspective, absolutely vital. “The particular manifestation of peer harassment can vary from school to school (and in ways that adults don’t necessarily have full insight into),” said Shepherd in an email, “so having students drive the intervention is crucial not only because of the sincerity and authenticity of the message when coming from students, but also because the content needs to be unique to each school.”

In other words, maybe at one school conflict is driven by, say, a long-standing and inexplicable-to-adults beef between the swim and football teams. At another, maybe there are racial conflicts. No one-size-fits-all approach is going to be effective at cooling off so many different types of tension.

Students, however, will have insights not only into which conflicts are occurring, but into the sort of language and arguments that can convince their peers to chill out. That’s why the researchers didn’t give them all that much instruction about how to go about reducing conflict — just that they should try to do so.

At the end of the study, Paluck and her colleagues used disciplinary records from the 49 schools that provided them, and the results of the second round of surveying, to track the effects of their intervention. Overall, the results were very positive: Schools in the treatment group saw a 30 percent reduction in reports of conflict between students.

To make that more concrete, Paluck and her colleagues write that “our estimates imply that the intervention reduced the total number of disciplinary events from 2,695 events to 2,012 events across the 11,938 students in treatment schools.”

Moreover, “students in treatment schools report[ed] higher levels of talking with friends about how to reduce conflict and of wearing anticonflict wristbands.” Some of these effects were, as hypothesized, stronger when they came from those ultraconnected social-referent students: “[S]tudents exposed to social referent seeds were more likely to report in the survey that a friend discussed how to reduce conflict with them,” and “also reported shifted perceptions of whether conflict was normative among their peers; they reported that more students in their school disapproved of conflict, relative to students in treatment schools who were not exposed to social referent seeds.”

In plain English, this just means that kids with lots of friends and acquaintances were better at spreading conflict-reducing messages than ones who lacked that degree of social connection.

Dave Nussbaum, a social psychologist at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business who wasn’t involved with the research, said in an email that he was quite impressed by the results. “It’s an incredibly ambitious project in which they put a lot of theory on normative influence to a road test,” he said. It was that aspect of psychological theory being applied in a real world that really stuck with him. “I believe the paper will go on to be a landmark study of how social influence works in a naturalistic environment — to date a huge proportion of the research on these questions has been done in controlled laboratory settings, so the fact that the effects are this strong in a messy environment like a school (and that their sample size was over 24,000 students) is truly impressive,” he said.

Now, there was one null result among all of the other striking findings: The researchers found no statistically significant differences between the treatment and control schools when it came to overall perceptions of social norms about conflict and bullying.

Paluck said she thought one possible explanation for this is that within the treatment schools there was an initial partial-backfire effect: In these schools, but not the control schools, kids noticed that a new campaign against conflict had popped up and thought to themselves, Whoa, if this is a big problem, lots of my classmates must be in favor of bullying and other forms of conflict! But taking into account that partial-backfire effect — if that’s what was going on — there was still a clear, promising pattern: Students who were exposed to the “seeds” who participated in the norm-shaping training program viewed their schools as less accepting of conflict than did students who weren’t exposed to those seeds, and the effect was even stronger when the seed in question was a social referent. This is all in line with what the researchers predicted, so there’s nothing here that really undermines the broader results.

As always, the next step will be more research — trying out similar programs in other schools, tweaking the specifics of how the intervention is delivered, and so on. But what’s exciting about Paluck, Shepherd, and Aronow’s finding is not just that their intervention appears to have worked, but that there are clearly stated theoretical reasons for why it worked: Simply put, social norms matter a great deal and are an important gateway to behavior. The story line makes sense, which is more than anyone can say about a great deal of past anti-bullying efforts, many of which seem to be fueled by little more than wishful thinking about the effects of hour-long school assemblies on students’ attitudes.

Related: Bullying researcher explains Donald Trump