Friends, Foes, Fitting In: Adolescent Social Psychology

Posted on: November 2nd, 2018 by Nick Mecikalski

Abby Corrigan, Midori Francis and Nicole Rodenburg. Photo by Joan Marcus.

As Kyeoung makes her way from childhood to adulthood, she faces adversity not just from boys and men who treat her as an object, but also, importantly, from her female peers who befriend Kyeoung at a young age, but grow to demonize her for her sexual behavior and exclude her from their social circles. Social dynamics like the ones seen in Usual Girls have been the subject of a great deal of research in the field of social psychology, which has worked to illuminate the forces behind those adolescent behaviors that can become aggressive, exclusionary, and hurtful.

Popular television and films tend to depict cliques as easily-definable categorizations of students in a high school or middle school: the “jocks,” the “nerds,” the “popular kids,” the “outcasts,” and so on. While cliques certainly arise from school classes and clubs, and often group together students of similar interests and demographics, they are not always as easy to spot as popular culture would have us believe. A clique is defined as any group of people who spend time together as friends and actively disallow others from joining their circle. The element of exclusion is the primary feature that distinguishes a clique from a looser group or pair of friends, and it gives rise to social hierarchies—that is, systems that rank people one above another.

Hierarchies within cliques:

👬 - Leaders: one or more people, tend to be very socially visible
👬👬👬 - Second-tier of leadership: support clique leaders but are often less well-known
👬👬👬 👬👬👬 -Followers: have little power in the group

Leaders of the clique may exert power by using positive or “prosocial” behaviors—such as cooperation, aid, and reciprocity—as well as with coercive tactics, like manipulation, deceit, and threats. A school environment can also give rise to hierarchies of cliques themselves, with “high-status” cliques of the most popular students—such as the girls who gang up on Kyeoung after her volleyball practice—often employing various forms of aggression to maintain their social status and visibility.

A deeper dive into the psychology of cliques reveals a broader sociological theory of intergroup behavior—that is, behavior that takes place between groups of people—called social identity theory. Developed by social psychologists Henri Tajfel and John Turner in the 1970s and ‘80s, social identity theory explores the degree to which a person’s inclusion in their social groups—cliques, schools, communities, nations, and so on—contributes to their internal concept of self, and how this identification with social groups leads people to treat those outside of their own group.

Tafjel and Turner’s research revealed that, as people jockey for a more “positive” social identity either by endeavoring to raise the social status of their own group, or by moving to a different group altogether, they tend to behave competitively and discriminatorily against those in different groups, regardless of how little they may know those people as individuals. Furthermore, when a person feels strongly about the social status of their own group, they will often act in the best interest of the group as a whole, even if that means doing things that are at odds with their own self-interest or behaving in a manner very different from how they normally would.

Early studies into social identity theory found common patterns of intergroup behavior between such real-world groups as the deeply divided Catholic and Protestant populations of Northern Ireland, black and white residents in American housing projects, and linguistic enclaves in Switzerland, among others. Teen cliques are just one kind of group that can be described by social identity theory, Tajfel and Turner’s framework can be very helpful in understanding Kyeoung’s relationships to her peers.

On a more intimate level than cliques, the one-on-one friendships that Kyeoung forges over the course of Usual Girls provide her healthy environments for navigating her young adulthood but also lead to painful breaches of trust. Psychological research into adolescent friendships in recent decades has identified behavioral patterns that are specific to friendships between females. While this research does not describe all female friendships categorically, the patterns that have been studied can help explain how friendships between girls are unique both in their benefits and in their challenges.

Studies have shown that, compared to friendships between males, friendships between females tend to become more intimate and involve more sharing of personal information. Female friendships are more likely to exist independently of larger groups than male friendships; this “isolation” can also encourage greater intimacy and lead to more meaningful bonds between females as compared to those between adolescent males. Physical intimacy, which often arises out of this emotional closeness, can lead to behaviors such as hand-holding, cuddling, and other acts that are traditionally associated with romantic relationships.

This intimacy can also, however, make conflict more fierce when it arises between female friends, especially if the private information that has been shared in confidence is maliciously spread to others. Because female friendships are more likely to exist independently of larger groups, the absence of a larger circle of peers to mitigate any potential conflicts can lead to harsher fights. Conflicts in female friendships tend to be more intense than those in males’, and girls are more likely than boys to terminate friendships altogether, or “friend break up,” which Kyeoung experiences firsthand in Usual Girls.

As decades of studies in social psychology have shown, Kyeoung is not at all alone in her struggle for social acceptance and friendship. Adolescents across the country and across world experience many similar social pressures, transitions, and fears.

Usual Girls is playing at the Black Box Theatre through December 9, 2018. Best availability on Sunday nights. For tickets and information, please visit our website.

Related Categories:
2018-2019 Season, Usual Girls

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