From as early as elementary school, children attribute fault for their peers’ undesirable traits and are less accepting of those who seemingly don’t try to change them, according to a team of psychologists from Kansas State University.

The researchers evaluated the responses of 137 third- to eighth-graders to statements about six hypothetical male peers: a poor academic student, a poor athlete, an extremely overweight student, an extremely aggressive student, an extremely shy student and a student exhibiting symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

“We led the children to believe that these six male students from another school had gone through interviews about six months apart,” said researcher Mark Barnett. “In the first interview, each of the hypothetical students described his problem and said whether he desired to fix it. We then told the students that six months later we brought those same kids back and asked if they’d been doing anything to change their undesirable characteristic, and whether they had been successful in doing so.”

The children then rated their attitudes toward the students on a five-point scale. The researchers found that the more the students blamed the hypothetical student for his undesirable characteristic, the more they would tease and make fun of him. They were also less likely to offer him help if he needed it. The overweight and aggressive students were disliked the most because the children not only considered them to be at fault for their undesirable attribute, but they were also seen as lacking the desire and motivation to change that attribute. The children did not view the poor academic student, the poor athlete, the shy student or the student with ADHD in the same negative light.

“Attributions of fault seem to be very important in children’s attitudes and anticipated reactions to peers with undesirable characteristics,” Barnett said. “The more they attribute fault to peers for being a poor student, a poor athlete or whatever, the more they dislike them and the more they anticipate responding to them in a negative manner.”

The researchers found that the girls in the study were typically kinder to the hypothetical students than the boys were, but the results were still the same regarding aggression and obesity. However, Barnett said, the study can speak in a positive way to any child with a negative attribute who is scared to make a change.

“If the students think that the child has tried to change, that tends to positively influence how they anticipate interacting with that peer,” Barnett said. “They really liked kids who are successful in overcoming their problem, but they also really liked kids who tried and put effort into changing.”

Source: Eurekalert

Heather Rudow is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Email her at hrudow@counseling.org.

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