Constructing a Theory of Power-Relevant Dyadic Helping and Aggressing: A mixed-methods study

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Virginia Tech

Helping and aggressing behaviors are important to study in adolescence because they relate to adaptive and maladaptive developmental outcomes. These behaviors take place within the social context and their impact may be determined by the nature of the dyadic relationship between the agent and the recipient of the behavior. Relative power may be a critical aspect of dyadic relationships as evidenced by the research on bullying and related outcomes. However, a review of the helping and aggression literatures shows that relative power between agents and recipients of behavior has largely been neglected, perhaps because measurement approaches focus on individual tendencies over time rather than single behaviors at one point in time. I propose a theory that includes relative power as a critical dimension in the conceptualization of aggression and helping in dyadic interactions. I define dyadic interpersonal behavior based on two bipolar continua: impact (extremely beneficial impact [helping] through no impact to extremely harmful impact [aggressing]) and relative power imbalance between dyad members (lower-power through balanced-power to higher-power).

In this dissertation, I tested whether my theory fits with adolescents' conceptualizations of helping and aggressing behavior in dyads using a mixed-methods approach. Focus group data collection occurred from two sessions with 13 and 11 adolescents in order to create gender-relevant and school-relevant vignettes of helping and aggressing behavior. Vignettes varied in intensity of impact (extremely beneficial, moderately beneficial, neutral, moderately harmful and extremely harmful), relative power between agent and recipient (i.e., high to high, low to low, high to low, and low to high power dyads), and power type (i.e., academic power and social power). The quantitative phase involved the rating of paired vignettes based on similarity by 203 students from the same high school as the focus group participants.

Similarity scores were aggregated within gender and the type of power (academic or social). Multidimensional scaling (MDS) was used to test whether the proposed theory of power-relevant helping and aggressing is supported by adolescents' similarity ratings. The models of boys' interpersonal behaviors show three-dimensional solutions whereas those for girls reflect four-dimensional solutions. The first dimension of benefit and harm, which was proposed in my theory, emerged in all four sets of analyses (academic-boys; academic-girls; social-boys; social-girls). The secondary dimension proposed in the theory, relative power, only emerged for girls in regard to social power, as the fourth dimension in that solution.

Qualitative analyses of focus group transcripts suggest that school atmosphere, power in the school, and bullying were primary themes salient in adolescents' thinking about helping and aggressing behavior. Relative power did not emerge as a theme or a concept in these qualitative analyses, suggesting that relative power is not a salient concept in adolescent thinking for helping and aggressing. Thus, neither quantitative nor qualitative analyses support the secondary dimension proposed in my theory.

This mixed-methods study advances theory and research by: 1) demonstrating that adolescents conceptualize helping and aggressing as opposite ends of a single dimension at the behavioral level, 2) demonstrating that power at the individual level with a group referent and collective dyadic power are more salient than relative power in adolescents' perceptions of helping and aggressing behavior, and 3) situating the conceptualization and measurement of interpersonal behavior within the relational context.

social power, aggressing, helping, bullying, mixed-methods