When Dianna Murray-Close, assistant professor in psychology, shows the movie Mean Girls in her developmental psychology course, her students tend to identify with the main character who learns the hard way that manipulation, rumor spreading and backstabbing are common tools for moving up the teenage social ladder.
"In girl world," declares actress Lindsay Lohan, "all the fighting has to be sneaky." The movie has a happy Hollywood ending with everyone becoming friends and Lohan declaring that "girl world was finally at peace."
Murray-Close knows that all is not well in real girl world, and her current research on relational aggression — any form of manipulation intended to hurt or control another child's ability to maintain rapport with peers — shows that its frequency increases during middle childhood and can cause depression, academic problems and peer rejection.
Her tests on heart rate assessment, blood pressure and sympathetic nerve system activity among 5th graders convinced Murray-Close that if girls can control their reactions at the point of increased cardiac activity, they can prevent committing acts of relational aggression.
"We have girls re-live a stressor and measure how their body reacts," she says. "One of the arguments here is that if you are someone who gets very physically worked up, this may be a pre-disposition to then respond to aggression. Ultimately, I'd like to develop some coping skills for girls."
Murray-Close is expanding her research at UVM's social development lab by going into local elementary and middle schools to collect data on fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh grade girls who have been victims of relational aggression and those who have committed such acts.
"We'll use data to see if students who engage in this are more depressed, more victimized, even more popular, so we can see the patterns of what might put someone at risk for engaging in these behaviors," says Murray-Close. "There's evidence that shows the aggressors are at risk and more likely to develop depressive symptoms, be disliked by peers and have problems with their friends later in life. We want to figure out what can be done to help them so they don't stay at risk. We also want to help kids who are victimized because they are also at risk."