A Study Examining Responses to Overt Versus Relational Aggression in College Students

Hailey Davis, Jon Cody Mactutus, Alina Marino, and Hayley Mulford

Advisor: Dr. Findley-Van Nostrand

[Picture of Girl Being Bullied] (2015). Retrieved from http://www.texasconflictcoach.com/2015/adolescent-relational-aggression-how-to-diminish-the-damage/

Background Information

The present study evaluated whether type of aggression (overt, relational) witnessed towards a peer impacted likelihood to intervene and/or desire to punish the aggressor, considering desensitization as a factor. Most peer aggression studies focus on childhood and adolescence, but we used emerging adults (18-24) instead because it would be further expansion as less is known about peer aggression in this age group.

Relational aggression is indirect, status hurting actions whereas overt aggression is direct actions with the intent to cause harm (Cairns, Neckerman, Ferguson, & Gariépy, 1989). Previous research has found that aggression has negative impacts on all involved; aggressors, victims, bystanders (Rivers, Poteat, Noret, & Ashurst, 2009). Both relational and overt aggression have internalizing and externalizing problems as negative possible outcomes for experiencing these types of aggression (Casper, Card, Bauman, & Toomey, 2017). The current study aimed to explore the differences in outcomes (intervening and punishing) based on the form of aggression (overt or relational). Although relational aggression is more common, especially in this age group, and just as problematic, people are less likely to recognize it as aggression (Crick & Grotpeter, 1995). So, we also tested whether people are more likely to perceive overt or relational aggression as aggression. Finally, we also explored the relationship of mood and previous exposure to aggression in these responses.


We recruited our participants through SONA, Roanoke College’s online psychology research website. Participants were awarded credit for their participation in this study. Everything was conducted in accordance with the guidelines of the Roanoke College Institutional Review Board, with participants supplying informed consent. In an online survey, participants were assigned to read a vignette about either relational or overt aggression where a familiar peer is aggressed upon by a stranger. First, they were asked questions to determine their current emotional state, then read a singular vignette, and then were asked if they thought the scene they read about was aggression. We also included a question to ensure that participants paid attention. 26 failed the check, leaving our final number of participants to be 130. We asked each participant whether what they just read about was aggression (and to what extent they thought it was aggression), how likely they would be to intervene in the situation, and to what extent they believed the aggressor should be punished. Participants were then asked about their previous exposure to either type of aggression. Lastly, participants were asked demographic information.

Results and Discussion

The results of the project were not as promising as we hoped. We had 60 participants in the relational aggression group and 69 participants in the overt aggression group. There was no significant difference in desire to punish between types of aggression. There was also no significant difference in likelihood to intervene between types of aggression. Sadly, the predictions that there would be a difference among the type of aggression and how a by-stander would feel and react were not found to be supported (see Figure 1). However, we did find that the type of aggression had an effect on the perception of whether the act was aggression or not- people were more likely to perceive overt aggression as aggression relative to relational aggression. Unfortunately, the predictions that prior exposure would account for some variance and predictive value in both intervening and punishing was not found to be supported either. Finally, emotion was not found to have a relationship with the likelihood to punish. We did not expect for most of our predictions to be rejected, but there are some promising ideas still prevalent. It is important that there is a relationship between how someone perceives aggression and the type because this can play a role in bullying. It seems from this study that relational aggression is not seen as aggression, which could help in efforts to reduce bullying. The statistical analyses we used may not have been complicated enough to reveal complex structures and relationships, but future studies could delve deeper.

Figure 1

Perception of Aggression, Likelihood to Intervene, and Desire to Punish Based  on Type of Aggression

Note. All variables were on a scale from 1-10. Perception of aggression (blue bars) differed significantly by type of aggression. The other variables did not.


Despite our results not being what we anticipated them to be, we were able to find out how people interpreted aggression. Fortunately, we did not have any problems with our research when we were no longer on campus and able to access the lab. The only difference with having to make our study online was the amount of credit the participants received. Our study took into account a wide range of variables so we could look at multiple factors that could possibly have an influence on the participants’ answers.


In conclusion, thoughts about the aggression witnessed did not seem to differ much between type of aggression, current state of emotions, or prior exposure to aggression. Some of our results might contradict other research, like our finding that prior exposure did not influence intervention or punishing, but some of our results match very well. Our study, as well as many others, found that people correctly identified overt aggression as a form of aggression. So, people know overt aggression when they see it which means you can rest assured that people are watching out for you! However, it seems relational aggression is less recognizable, which could say something about the way college students interact.


Cairns, R.B., Cairns, B.D., Neckerman, H.J., Ferguson, L.L., & Gariepy, J.-L. (1989).  Growth and aggression: I. Childhood to early adolescence. Developmental Psychology, 25, 320– 330. https://doi.org/10.1037/0012-1649.25.2.320

Casper, D. M., Card, N. A., Bauman, S., & Toomey, R. B. (2017). Overt and relational aggression participant role behavior: Measurement and relations with sociometric status and depression. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 27(3), 661–673.      https://doi.org/10.1111/jora.12306

Rivers, I., Poteat, V. P., Noret, N., & Ashurst, N. (2009). Observing bullying at school: The mental health implications of witness status. School Psychology Quarterly, 24(4), 211–223. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0018164