Patterns of change over time in beliefs legitimizing aggression in adolescents and young adults: risk trajectories and their relationship with serious aggression.

Author:Nash, James K.

Using an ecological developmental conceptual framework for understanding and preventing serious aggression, the authors examined the relationship over time between beliefs legitimizing aggression (BLA) and use of aggression. Data from seven waves of the National Youth Survey were used to fit a semiparametric group-based model that identified four distinct trajectories of BLA risk over time: low/stable, moderate/stable, moderate/decreasing, and high/decreasing. Results indicated that BLA risk was associated with the onset of serious aggression by early adolescence. BLA risk status was significantly related to aggression at all seven waves, but the magnitude of the relationships was smaller at later waves. Comparison of the moderate/stable and moderate/decreasing risk groups indicated that decreases in BLA risk level during late adolescence and young adulthood were not related to decreases in levels of aggression. Results suggest that reducing beliefs about aggression is a promising strategy for primary prevention aimed at children and young adolescents but that secondary prevention and treatment should target factors other than BLA risk to bring about reduced levels of aggression.

KEY WORDS: adolescents; aggression; beliefs; young adults; trajectories


Increases in the level and severity of aggression in youth during the 1980s and 1990s prompted a wealth of research by scholars in social work and other fields aimed at building knowledge of its nature and etiology (Dodge & Pettit, 2003). This research has produced an extensive body of conceptual and empirical literature on the onset and course of serious aggression and related problems in childhood and adolescence and on prevention policies and programs (for example, Crick & Dodge, 1994; Dodge, Dishion, & Lansford, 2006; Fraser & Galinsky, 2004; Hawkins et al., 2003; Metropolitan Area Child Study [MACS] Research Group; 2002). An ecological developmental framework for understanding and preventing aggression and related problems has emerged from this research (Dodge & Pettit).According to the framework, which synthesizes research results from multiple disciplines, serious and chronic aggression is a result of the complex interaction over time of individual and environmental risk factors. Individual-level social--cognitive mechanisms are posited as key risk factors that mediate relationships among more distal factors and the occurrence of aggression. These social--cognitive risk factors often serve as a focus of intervention efforts aimed at preventing and treating serious aggression (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services [HHS], 2001, 2005).The current study examines a particular social--cognitive risk factor, beliefs legitimizing aggression (BLA), and its relationship with serious aggression, There is a focus on examining whether changes over time in beliefs about aggression are related to changes in levels of serious aggression.


An ecological developmental framework identifies biopsychosocial risk factors that have been empirically linked to serious aggression and related problems (Dodge & Pettit, 2003; see Fraser & Galinsky, 2004, for a more general but similar framework for risk and resilience in childhood). The framework draws on social learning, information-processing, social disorganization, and other theories to postulate processes through which risk factors are thought to influence the onset and course of problems. According to the framework, certain biological and environmental factors predispose some infants to an increased likelihood of early aggressive behavior. Across childhood and adolescence, individual, family, school, peer, neighborhood, and sociocultural risk factors interact, resulting in risk processes that launch some children onto a developmental trajectory characterized by increased and, ultimately, chronic use of aggressive behavior. Reliance on aggression to solve social problems has adverse consequences on others and on a child's own subsequent behavior and development. Serious aggression, school failure, delinquency, mental health disorders, and other problems in adolescence and beyond are likely results. Results of longitudinal and preventive studies provide strong empirical support for the framework (see Dodge & Pettit for a summary of many of these results).

Social-Cognitive Mediators of Risk

According to an ecological developmental framework, individual-level social--cognitive structures and processes function as key risk factors that mediate the effects of more distal risk factors on the onset and course of problems (Dodge & Pettit, 2003). Huesmann (1998) proposed a model wherein human behavior, including aggression, is largely determined at the situational level by individual social information-processing mechanisms. These mechanisms include attending to and interpreting environmental cues, accessing and evaluating cognitive scripts that are stored in memory and that guide behavior, and enacting and assessing the impact of a response. Biological factors and temperament provide a foundation for an individual's processing, but environmental factors such as exposure to harsh parenting and community violence also influence how processing occurs (Huesmann).

Empirical and theoretical literature highlights the influence of social-cognitive mediators such as hostile attribution bias (Dodge, Price, Bacharowski, & Newman, 1990) and response selection (Lochman & Dodge, 1994). A particularly salient social--cognitive factor involves the extent to which an individual ascribes to norms that legitimize aggression as an acceptable problem-solving strategy (Slaby & Guerra, 1988). Beliefs about the legitimacy of aggression influence behavior, for example, by increasing the likelihood of accessing an aggression-oriented script or by influencing how an individual evaluates a script before selecting it or discarding it in favor of an alternative (Huesmann, 1998).

Huesmann (1998) reviewed empirical studies supporting the relationship between beliefs and aggression and noted that these effects change as children develop. For early school-age children, normative beliefs "are very unstable and do not predict much about subsequent aggression behavior" (p. 99), although they are predicted by a child's previous aggressive behavior. However, beliefs appear to stabilize by about age 10 or 11 and become reliable predictors of subsequent aggression. Zelli and colleagues (1999) found support for a mediation model wherein direct effects of beliefs (measured in grade 3) on aggression (measured in. grade 5) were mediated by information-processing mechanisms such as cue interpretation (measured in grade 4). Musher-Eizenman and colleagues (2004) found that beliefs about aggression were positively related to aggressive behavior and that beliefs partially mediated the effects of background variables. Beliefs about physical aggression more strongly predicted physical aggression, whereas belief about relational aggression were more strongly related to relational aggression. In sum, research indicates that beliefs legitimizing aggression play a key role in the use of aggression. There is evidence that aggression beliefs mediate the effects of more distal influences (for example, exposure to aggression) and that aggression beliefs become more stable during adolescence. However, research has not examined the stability of these beliefs into late adolescence and early adulthood.

Prevention and Intervention

Literature on best practices for violence prevention emphasizes a need for comprehensive programs that target individual and environmental risk and protective factors (see, for example, HHS, 2001). Within this broad framework for violence prevention, however, individual-focused programs often target social--cognitive mechanisms. Many such programs include...

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