Nov 3, 2011 by Bill Jenkins, Ph.D.

Aggressive behavior

Many people believe that youth who are aggressive and violent towards other children have low self-esteem. Youth programs are often designed to boost self-esteem in kids at risk. Does the research support this belief? A team of researchers designed a study on young teens to examine their responses to feeling shame.

The subjects were asked to compete in an easy, timed task against a competitor.  Some of the youth experienced shame when they were shown a fake list of competitors’ times and saw their own times at the bottom of the list.  The group that did not experience shame was not shown competitors’ times or their own rank.  Then all participants were given an opportunity to act aggressively by blasting their opponent with loud noise through headphones.  All participants also completed self report measures of narcissism (grandiose views of self, inflated sense of entitlement) and self-esteem a few weeks prior to the competition. 

The results of this experiment showed no evidence that the kids with low self-esteem were more aggressive.  Instead, kids with narcissistic traits were most likely to react to shame with aggression.  This is interesting to think about from the perspective of educators who want to support learning through optimizing a collaborative atmosphere as opposed to promoting a highly competitive environment.


The Cracked Mirror: Features of Narcissistic Personality Disorder in Children. 2009.

Related Reading:

Of Rats and Men: How Stress Affects the Brain

Adolescence: What’s the Brain Got to do with it?