Does greater social interaction with well-connected students who have assigned to a year long anti-harassment intervention shape their peers’ perception of the school’s collective social norm regarding harassment? Does greater social interaction change their peers’ harassment behavior?
High schools in the United States frequently report harmful patterns of harassment within all connections throughout their individual social networks. Harassment can be based on ethnic and racial identity, appearance, sexual orientation, and sexual activity. This abuse also can be transmitted in many ways, from online social media sites and text messaging through verbal or physical harm. Surprisingly high rates of harassment stem from a type of perceived social consensus over harassment within schools; even though students may not explicitly approve of the abuse, their private attitudes do not translate into behaviors aimed at discouraging harassers or defending victims. This failure to defend victims is interpreted by their peers as acceptance of harassment. This kind of perceived social acceptance is what psychologists label a perceived norm. Thus, the hypothesis is that to change the harassment behaviors, it is sufficient to change individuals’ perceptions of norms governing harassment behaviors at their school.
Paluck and Shepherd first conducted a survey of the total student population at a small public high school in Connecticut (N=291) that measured the student social network via student nominations. They also used questions to measure perceptions of prescriptive norms regarding harassment at the school, of behavior that can deescalate harassment, and of students’ rationale for harassment. They administered the survey twice more (three times total) after their intervention.
After the first wave of the survey was completed, Paluck and Shepherd used social network analysis to identify two types of influential individuals, called social referents. The first is a widely known individual with many ties across the high school’s social network, and the other is an individual with many ties at the center of a clique, meaning that the students to whom they are tied are generally tied to one another. They then randomly assigned these social referents, after blocking for grade and gender, to the intervention. Paluck and Shepherd use the Names Can Really Hurt Us (NAMES) intervention program, which prepares a small group of selected students to present their experiences of and reasons to oppose harassment in schoolwide assemblies. Referents participated in training before the assembly and then performed skits, read essays, and conduced small-group discussions, all related to experiences of harassment within the school setting.
To measure behavioral outcomes, Paluck and Shepherd used a survey administered to teachers and administrative staff, disciplinary records, and purchase receipts of inexpensive wristbands that propagated the anti-harassment message.
Paluck and Shepherd test the effects of the randomly assigned intervention social referents on the rest of the students in the school. Here is what they found:
Prescriptive and descriptive norm change. Students with more ties to referent students were found to have significant improvements in their perceptions of collective norms regarding harassment.
Changes in individual beliefs, experiences, and attitudes. Referents were not found to influence students’ personal beliefs about harassment or their attitudes toward the anti-harassment intervention. Students with more ties to referents were found to have less personal trouble with harassment.
Behavioral changes. There was a significant decrease in harassment behavior and increase in anti-harassment behavior accompanied with improvements in perceptions of collective norms about harassment among students with more ties to intervention social referents.
Effects of the two types of social referents. Widely Known & Clique Leaders Clique leaders significantly influenced perceptions of their close friends’ norms more than the widely-known referents did. Students with more ties to clique leaders were significantly more likely than students with ties to widely known students to defend peers against harassment. Students with greater ties to widely known referents were significantly more likely to purchase anti-harassment wristbands.
Change in seemingly entrenched patterns of behavior like bullying is possible without recourse to heavy handed or punitive strategies. Understanding who can influence individuals’ perceptions of collective social norms can help point to how to change seemingly stable norms and behavioral patterns in a community.