A mixed methods investigation of a typology of reactive and proactive aggression

  • Lisa Hopkins

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


The overarching aim of the thesis was to identify and explore a behavioural typology of the use of reactive and proactive aggression in a sample of 9-14 year-old English children and adolescents. To date, few studies have employed a person centred approach to investigate behavioural patterns of the use of both reactive and proactive aggression. Of these only two have investigated the behaviour of community, rather than specialised or clinical participant samples (Crapanzano, Frick and Terranova 2010; Mayberry and Espelage 2007). However, these two studies employed methods which raise questions regarding the reliability and/or generalisability of the results obtained. For example, neither study asked participants whether they had actually engaged in the behaviours of interest; rather they asked children to report on how likely they felt they were to react in the same way as described in a list of aggressive scenarios presented to them. As such the studies did not actually record engagement in aggressive behaviour, rather the participants' perceived likelihood that they would behave in a certain way. Furthermore, neither study was conducted in the UK, leading to questions of generalisability between participant samples.

Both research and school policy in England and Wales has focused on exploring the use of proactive forms of aggression (including bullying) in schools, and reactive aggression has to date been neglected. However, it is essential that we identify the prevalence and patterns of the use of both reactive and proactive forms of aggression as both are prevalent in schools and place children and adolescents at risk of harm. Employing a mixed methodological
approach, a two-phased data collection procedure was followed to identify and explore a behavioural typology of the use of reactive and proactive aggression and differences in associated demographic, behavioural and socio-cognitive risk factors between the behavioural groups identified.

In Phase 1, focus groups were conducted with 57 (20 males, 37 females) children and adolescents aged 9 – 18 years, in order to understand how they define terminology utilised across the research literature to describe acts of negative interpersonal behaviour. Across three data collection sites participants
reported consistent definitions of the terms provided to them and differentiated between the terms aggression, violence and bullying. Social representations of the reasons they believed people engaged and avoided engaging in interpersonal aggression also emerged from their talk. These related to the role of taking the perspective, or empathising with others and the perception of a level of justification for certain types of behaviour, enacted under certain

In Phase 2 a survey design was used to collect both qualitative and
quantitative data from 658 children and adolescents aged 9-14 years (302 males, 356 females). The aim of Phase 2 was to identify a behavioural typology of the use of reactive and proactive aggression based on self-report data collected using a modified version of the Reactive-Proactive Aggression Questionnaire (RPAQ; Raine et al 2006). Once the behavioural subtypes were identified, associations between subtype and, involvement in bullying relationships, demographic (age and gender) and social-cognitive
characteristics (empathy, perceived acceptance of behaviour and social representations of why people become involved in negative interpersonal interactions) were examined. Cluster analysis of the RPAQ data identified three distinct behavioural groups characterised by lower than the sample median use of both types of behaviour (Low Aggression: characterising 57.1% of the
sample), Moderate-high reactive and Low-moderate proactive aggression (characterising 34.4% of the sample), and finally a group indicating frequent use of both reactive and proactive aggression (High Aggression: characterising 8.5% of the sample). The only age and gender related differences within the clusters were found in the low frequency aggression cluster. Specifically, there were a greater proportion of females compared to males in this cluster. The only age related difference found was a greater percentage of primary school children compared to 13-14 year olds in the Low aggression cluster.

Group membership was found to be associated with self-reported
bullying as measured by the Peer Victimization and Bullying Scale (Mynard and Joseph 2000). The High frequency aggression cluster contained a significantly higher percentage of those indicating being a bully or a bully-victim compared to the other two clusters. Whereas the Low frequency cluster contained a significantly higher percentage of those indicating not being involved in bullying
compared to the other two clusters. However, reporting being a victim of bullying was not associated with any one of the three clusters. Of the socio-cognitive variables, a significant incremental increase was found in the perceived acceptance of both reactive and proactive aggression as the reported frequency of the use of both types of behaviour increased across the three behavioural groups (as measured by a modified version of the RPAQ; Raine et
al 2006). Conversely, an incremental decrease was observed between the frequency of the use of aggression and reported affective empathy (as measured by the Basic Empathy Scale; Jolliffe and Farrington 2006), with a significant difference being found between the Low and High frequency aggression groups. No significant differences between the groups in self-reported cognitive empathy were found. Finally, participants were asked two
open-ended questions relating to their perception of why people are 'picked on', or 'pick on' others. Thematic Analysis identified a number of social representations held across the participant sample, with a further content analysis identifying that there were no significant differences in the extent to which these representations were endorsed by the three behavioural groups.

The findings of the current research have important implications for our understanding of the developmental pathways for the use of reactive and proactive aggression. They identify that both types of behaviour co-occur, suggesting that the risk factors for the development of these two types of behaviour may not be so distinct and/or the risk factors associated with each are likely to co-occur. Consequently, school behaviour policies need to include
strategies for addressing both forms of aggression. Interventions to reduce/prevent this behaviour need to be designed to address the risk factors which are promoting the specific motivations of both reactive and proactive behaviour.
Date of Award2016
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Coventry University
SupervisorLaura Taylor (Supervisor), Erica Bowen (Supervisor) & Clare Wood (Supervisor)

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