The Social Relations Collaborative, which was formerly known The Advanced Social Psychology Lab, was founded at Mississippi State University in 2005. Since its transition in 2012, the Collaborative has been inviting the perspectives of multiple fields in which its collaborative work provides remarkable insight into understanding human social behavior.

The fields included in the Collaborative thus far are Psychology, Sociology, Education, Counseling, Marketing, Computer Science, Communications, Anthropology, Engineering, and Human Sciences.

Although schools are generally a safe environment for most children, aggression in schools remains a problem carrying short and long-term consequences for youth physical and mental health. This warrants youth aggression recognition as a public health concern.

As research on bullying continues to grow, it is only recently that the role of social identities and intergroup dynamics in aggression among adolescents has gained attention.  This project was funded by the National Institute of Justice’s Comprehensive School Safety Initiative and came out to be approximately $1.7 million for the collaborative.

“People are, of course, concerned about school shootings. Perpetrators were bullied, rejected, or socially excluded before shootings in more than 90% of cases,” said Sinclair. “It was a key question as to what made those kids snap whereas other kids who have been bullied don’t. Specifically, the project addresses several gaps in previous youth aggression research.

“When people are rejected, such as when they are bullied, research has established throughout 40 years that it leads people to be aggressive,” said Sinclair. “However, that’s not the only behavioral response, right? People get rejected all the time without lashing out at people. But one of the drawbacks of the preceding research was that they basically only gave people the option to respond aggressively. In real life, people have more than one option of how to respond. So, we wanted to expand which behaviors were being measured by testing the new multi-motive model.”

According to Sinclair, this multi-motive model is meant to lay out the intervening factors that lead people to choose one behavioral response – aggression – over another (e.g., forgiveness).

Thus, our focus was to test a new theoretical model examining when rejection leads to aggression,” said Colleen Sinclair, head of the 4-year Project. However, the team created two amendments to the original model in which they built in two additional predictors.

The first addition addressed how socially alienating an experience was for an individual. The second was how much the individual perceived they were being attacked by a group or group representative as a group member.

The goal of the Collaborative’s 4-year School Safety Project has been to address the critical need for research on when bullying leads to retaliation. Identity-based aggression among adolescents emerged as a possible answer.

Sinclair and her team, which was a collaboration with David May in criminology, Tawny McCleon in school psychology, Megan Stubbs-Richardson of the Social Science Research Center, Rebecca Goldberg in counseling psychology, as well as two research associates, four graduate research assistants, ten undergraduate assistants, and three high school interns, proceeded to conduct four years of surveys and experiments to test the theoretical model, three being in Starkville’s local high school and the fourth being a national sample using a Qualtrics panel.

This research was also complemented by vignette studies, which provide scenarios in which people are asked how they would respond.

In addition, the team reinvented the experimental paradigm called the Cyberball Game, originally invented by Kip Williams. The team reinvented the game by adding a social media component to the original invention. Every player of the experiment was led to interact on social media prior to entering the game. Within the game, players were randomly assigned to either be included or excluded in the ball tossing. Upon the closing of the game, players were given the opportunity to respond, including a full spectrum of responses rather than aggression alone.

David May, whose primary role in the project was to serve as the liaison between the study’s team and the schools, worked largely on data collection for this project.

“I think it’s very important to help the local school district get a better understanding of what’s going on in their schools,” May said. “This project was a good example of how a multidisciplinary team can work effectively with action research. We went into a school district and helped them understand what was going on in their district specifically. I think this research was very helpful for the district, and I know that they have been very appreciative of this project and are looking forward to working with us in the future.”

Overall Project Findings

The team found that much aggressive rejection was identity-based, meaning that people were being targeted due to sociodemographic identities such as race, religion, or national origin. Further, results revealed that there were positive links between rates of identity-based victimization and negative affect such as self esteem. Importantly, it was these group variables – i.e., whether one felt targeted because of a social identity and felt others like them were targeted as well – that was the strongest and most consistent predictor of aggressive retaliation when rejected.

Throughout the course of the study, victimized students were first asked whether they felt they were targeted because of a social identity, including race, gender, religion, politics, nationality/immigration status, or sexual orientation. 52% of victimized students responded affirmatively (yes or maybe) indicating that they felt that at least one of their social identities may have led to their victimization.  Thus, 39% of the total sample – victimized or no – reported experiencing some form of identity-based aggression.

Identity-based aggression was most prevalent in the cyber category (e.g., on-line or through text message).  Also, race-based remained the most common despite the sample being largely African American.  The highest rate of race-based victimization was among other racial minorities (e.g., Asian American, Native American, mixed race youth).  Rates among white and African American youth were relatively equivalent (24.5% and 22.4% respectively).

Next, students were asked to report whether the experience produced negative affect (e.g., fear, anger) or had a negative impact on their self-concept (e.g., lowering their self-esteem). The correlations indicated that higher levels of perceived identity-based victimization are linked to higher rates of negative psychological consequences.

The majority of youth surveyed reported a recent victimization, and approximately half of these incidents were perceived as potentially identity-based, especially when the incident occurred online. In response, identity-based victims expressed negative effects (fear, anger) and negative self-evaluations more so victims who experienced non-identity-based victimization.

These heightened negative emotional responses make it more likely to see effects such as social withdrawal, self-harm, and even aggression.

To the team’s knowledge, this study was the first to extend the model to this capacity.

An additional unique contribution of this project includes the finding that identity-based bullying is particularly problematic online.

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Story by Madeline Burdine.

Social Relations Collaborative’s 4-Year Study Comes to a Close
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