Helping Teens Realize: People Can Change

Teenager aggression decreased in social situations when they understood people can change

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Teenagers aren't exactly known for their level-headedness. Some can develop patterns of hostility or aggression. But a simple lesson might help change those patterns.

A recent study investigated whether teens became less aggressive after learning that people have the ability to change over time.

The study involved 13 different experiments with over a thousand teens from all different backgrounds. The researchers found that helping teens understand people can change does make a difference.

The teenagers reacted less negatively to situations with conflict when they understood that people are not "stuck" as just "good" or "bad" people forever.

"Teach teens that people can change."

The overall study, led by David Yeager, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, involved multiple smaller studies completed first.

These eleven initial studies involved eight different groups of teens for a total of 1,659 teenagers, aged 13 to 16. These mini-studies were designed specifically to see how teens reacted to minor offenses depending on what attitudes they held about people.

The teens included in these experiments came from both wealthy and low-income schools and involved racially diverse students. The group also included teens who came from high-violence neighborhoods and teens from neighborhoods with little violence.

The teens were interviewed to determine whether they believed people could change or whether they were "fixed," such as believing once-a-bully-always-a-bully.

Then these teens were given scenarios involving conflicts or in situations where they were socially excluded from an activity to see how they would react.

Basically, these smaller experiments found that teenagers who believed people were ultimately either "good" or "bad" – with no in between and no ability to change – tended to be more aggressive or hostile.

If someone accidentally bumped them in the hall, for example, they reacted aggressively and assumed that was a "bad" person who had bumped them on purpose.

Then, the researchers conducted a new experiment with 63 teens to see if they could change this fixed attitude about people and how that might affect teens' aggressiveness. One group of teens came from a neighborhood with high violence and one group came from a lower-violence area.

The researchers first gave the teenagers a scientific article describing the brain's "plasticity," or its ability to change over time. Then the teens were given notes from older students describing the belief that people can change over time.

Last, these teens wrote notes to future students that described how people could change, using the information from the science article. They were also surveyed to see how much they agreed with the article's information.

Meanwhile, a separate third group was given information about the ability to improve in academics. This group was designed to be a comparison group.

This time, when the researchers presented the teens with a social situation involving conflict, fewer of the teens thought the "offender" was being mean on purpose, and fewer reacted with aggressive responses.

Finally, the researchers conducted a third experiment with 78 teens that tested whether changing their beliefs made a difference in their aggressiveness over the long term.

Half the teens were given the same information on the brain's ability to change, and the other half were given information on people's ability to improve athletically.

The effect appeared to work over the long term: "Experimental group participants, who learned during the first month of school that people have the potential to change, were significantly less likely to attribute a hypothetical peer’s negative action to hostile intent at the end of the school year, eight months later," the researchers wrote.

Teaching teens that people can actually change, then, affects how aggressively they respond to situations.

The study was published February 11 in the journal Child Development. The research was funded by the Spencer Foundation and the Thrive Foundation for Youth.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
February 11, 2013
Last Updated:
February 12, 2013