Changing climates of conflict: A social network experiment in 56 schools

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Citation: Elizabeth Paluck, Hana Sheperd, Peter Aronow (2015) Changing climates of conflict: A social network experiment in 56 schools. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (RSS)
DOI (original publisher): 10.7910/DVN/29199
Semantic Scholar (metadata): 10.7910/DVN/29199
Sci-Hub (fulltext): 10.7910/DVN/29199
Internet Archive Scholar (search for fulltext): Changing climates of conflict: A social network experiment in 56 schools
Tagged: Sociology (RSS) Social Influence (RSS), Social Norms (RSS), Bullying (RSS), Adolescents (RSS), Social Psychology (RSS)


It has been proposed that humans base their behavior on perceived social norms in the communities that they are situated in. Paluck et. al evaluate this theory by developing an experiment on conflict reduction in New Jersey schools. They find that when students encourage conflict-reducing behavior among their online social networks, there is a reduction of disciplinary reports by 30% over 1 year.


Several approaches have been proposed for reducing negative behavior and/or encouraging positive behavior across a community. However, much of the debate has been on a theoretical level rather than a practical level. As such, it is not clear what approaches should be used in real-world situations.


To determine how community-wide behavior can be altered in the real world, Paluck designed an experiment for reducing conflict among students in New Jersey schools. Her experiment incorporates three popular theories:

  1. Developing behavioral interventions that are targeted towards an individual's psychology
  2. Scaling up behavioral interventions with regulation or community-level persuasion
  3. Altering behavior through peer influence


28 of 56 New Jersey schools were randomly selected to receive the intervention. Within these schools, a group of students were randomly selected that represented 15% of the school's population, and half of these students were selected to participate in the experiment. These students would go to optional weekly meetings to develop strategies for conflict reduction with the assistance of a trained researcher. The students would then encourage their peers via social media to adopt these behaviors.


On average, the intervention reduced the number of disciplinary reports by 30%. Furthermore, students that were identified among their peers as "social referents" had an even greater effect on encouraging conflict-reducing behaviors. When 20% of the students that received the intervention in a given school were identified as social referents, the school experienced a 60% reduction in disciplinary reports. Lastly, when social referents received the intervention, other students were less likely to believe that conflict is a normal thing. These results show that social referents are best equipped to spread conflict-reducing behaviors across a community through peer influence.

Notable References

Paluck EL, Shepherd H (2012) The salience of social referents: A field experiment on collective norms and harassment behavior in a school social network. J Pers Soc Psychol 103(6):899–915.

Ennett ST, Tobler NS, Ringwalt CL, Flewelling RL (1994) How effective is drug abuse resistance education? A meta-analysis of Project DARE outcome evaluations. Am J Public Health 84(9):1394–1401.

Theoretical and Practical Relevance

The findings of this paper have practical implications for fighting bullying in schools. Instead of drafting top-down policies to reduce bullying on a community level, students should instead be encouraged on an individual level to speak out against conflict. By doing so, students will adjust their behaviors based on perceived social norms.