Adolescent Girls' Perceptions of Goodness and Badness and the Role of Will in Their Behavioral Decisions

By Nelson, Amanda K.; Buchholz, Ester Schaler | Adolescence, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Adolescent Girls' Perceptions of Goodness and Badness and the Role of Will in Their Behavioral Decisions


Nelson, Amanda K., Buchholz, Ester Schaler, Adolescence


In recent years, increasing attention has been paid to the concepts of malevolence and evil (e.g., Bandura, 1999; Baumeister & Campbell, 1999; Buchholz, 2000; Buchholz & Mandel, 2000; Buchholz, Robillard, Mandel, & Nelson, 2000; Darley, 1999; Goldberg, 1996; Grand, 2001; Levine, 1997; Miller, 1999; Simon, 1996; Staub, 1999). Miller (1999) suggests that researchers are increasingly concerned with "pervasive and serious harmdoing" (p. 176), and notes that the term "evil" has appeared in many recent scholarly publications by psychologists and social theorists. Moreover, prompted by the devastating events of September 11, 2001, the language of the general public has recently shifted to include the concepts of good and evil. For the moment, this focus seems to have drawn attention away from previous concerns about the development of cruel aggression and malice in children, concerns which came about in response to violent and disturbing acts such as the school shootings of the past few years. However, underlying worries about violent and malevolent youth undoubtedly remain.

Professionals facing the emergent trend of brutal acts perpetrated by children and youth recognize the importance of understanding the factors that contribute to these behaviors. The research of which this paper is a part attempts to explore and clarify the reasons adolescents engage in violent, destructive behaviors. The paper begins by briefly reviewing previous explanations within psychology for the development of malevolence. Theories about the emotional and moral development of adolescent girls are then presented. Finally, drawing from an ongoing study of adolescents' understandings of goodness and badness, and the role of will in their behavioral decisions, we specifically compare, analyze, and discuss data collected from two groups of adolescent girls. Ultimately, the hope is that this analysis will help elucidate the intrapsychic and environmental factors that shape adolescent girls' everyday decisions to behave in good and bad ways.

PSYCHOLOGICAL EXPLANATIONS FOR EVIL

Psychologists have offered various theories to account for the development of malevolence in children and youth. Many have explored factors such as inner-city poverty (see Nelson & Buchholz, 2000, for an in-depth discussion of this literature) and poor parenting (see Robillard & Buchholz, 1999, for an in-depth discussion of this literature) to explain youth crime and violence. Others have emphasized moral development (e.g., Gilligan, 1982; Kohlberg, 1981; Piaget, 1936, 1952), and propose developmental stages in the acquisition of moral reasoning skills. However, while theories of moral development attempt to offer insight into morality, critics suggest that they really study adherence to social conventions rather than ethical and moral choices based on inner ideals (Bandura, 1999; Coles, 1986, 1997; Thomas, 1997; Turiel, 1980). As Coles (1986) suggests, "A well-developed conscience does not translate, necessarily, into a morally courageous life. Nor do well-developed powers of philosophical thinking and moral analysis necessarily translate into an everyday willingness to face down the various evils of this world" (p. 21). Ultimately, children's actions may be quite different from what they have been taught or report to believe.

Evil and Will

Numerous theorists have made important contributions to contemporary explorations of goodness, badness, and evil. Psychoanalytic discussions of will and choice are particularly important to the research on good and evil presented in this paper. Rank (1964) was among the first to recognize will as an innate characteristic of human nature, and criticized earlier psychoanalysts for failing to identify will or describing it as a negative influence: "Why must will be denied if it actually plays so great a role in reality ... why is will valued as bad, evil, reprehensible, unwelcome, when it is the power which consciously and positively, yes even creatively, forms both the self and the environment? …

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