Affiliation, Flirting, and Fun: Mock Aggressive Behavior in College Students

By Ballard, Mary E.; Green, Shavonda et al. | The Psychological Record, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Affiliation, Flirting, and Fun: Mock Aggressive Behavior in College Students


Ballard, Mary E., Green, Shavonda, Granger, Caroline, The Psychological Record


Mock aggression, behavior that resembles aggression but lacks intent to harm, is usually considered within the realm of childhood and has not been examined beyond adolescence in humans. We asked emerging adults (Arnett, 2000) about their mock aggressive interactions and the social and emotional outcomes of these interactions. Examining mock aggression into adulthood is important to our understanding of its developmental course, sequela, and functions, and of the similarities and differences in serious and mock aggression.

Aggression is behavior aimed at harming other living beings, physically or emotionally (Baron & Richardson, 1994; Berkowitz, 1998; Geen, 1998). Mock aggression has a dual nature, in that it resembles serious aggression structurally, but lacks intent to harm, and is friendly or playful. The emotional contexts and outcomes of mock aggression and aggression are antithetical. Aggression is usually accompanied by negative emotions outcomes (Anderson & Dill, 2000; Berkowitz, 1998). Mock aggression is typically accompanied by positive emotions and almost always has positive outcomes (Ballard, 1998; Boulton, 1991 a; Fry, 1990; Humphreys & Smith, 1987; Smith & Boulton, 1990).

Mock aggression occurs in nearly all species of fauna (Aldis, 1975; Fagen, 1981) and includes behaviors such as play-fighting, tickling, chasing, wrestling, and biting. Among humans, mock aggression is also used as a nonverbal means of celebration (e.g., hand slaps, head butts), greeting (e.g., giving the finger), and flirting (e.g., bumping, biting). Across species, play faces and signals are used to elicit mock aggression and moderate the intensity and duration of a bout (Fagen, 1981; Pellis, 1988).

Children as young as 4 years of age discriminate between mock and serious aggression using cues such as positive vocalizations and facial expressions, pretending, play face, role-reversal, restraint, and self-handicapping (Boulton, 1991 a; Fry, 1987; Smith & Boulton, 1990; Smith, Hunter, Carvalho, & Costabile, 1992). Other distinguishing features include outcome of bout (e.g., continuing to interact), posture, and targets (Boulton, 1991a; Fry, 1990; Pellis, 1988; Smith & Boulton, 1990; Smith et al., 1992). Mock aggressive behaviors have the potential to cause harm, but rarely result in injury or distress because when mock aggression becomes too intense, the partner is signaled and stimulation lessens (Boulton, 1991a; Fry, 1990; Pellegrini & Smith, 1998; Pellis, 1988).

Variables such as developmental status, gender, and context affect mock aggression. It first appears between parents and infants and is common among peers during the juvenile years before decreasing as adolescence or adulthood approaches (Enomoto, 1990; Fry, 1987; McDonald & Parke, 1986; Pellegrini & Smith, 1998; Pellis & Pellis, 1997). Among humans, mock aggression peaks around the age of 8 (Boulton, 1996; Pellegrini & Smith, 1998). Little is known about mock aggression in adult humans.

Findings regarding gender and mock aggression vary depending on developmental status and species (Enomoto, 1990; McDonald & Park, 1986; Pellis & McKenna, 1992; Weiner & Crick, 1999). Among children, boys displayed more total mock aggression than girls, but girls were just as likely to chase and wrestle as boys (Boulton, 1996; Smith et al., 1992). Among adults competing in sports, women showed slightly higher levels of mock aggression than men (Ballard, 1998; Smith, Willis, & Gier, 1980; Sugiyama, 1990).

Contexual factors also affect mock aggression. It is more common among familiar and similar partners (Boulton, 1991b; Fry, 1990; Humphreys & Smith, 1987; Pellis & McKenna, 1992; Thor & Holloway, 1984). Aggressive models and toys (e.g., bobo dolls, weapons, video games) increase the probability of mock aggression (Bandura, Ross, & Ross, 1997; Fry, 1990; Hellendoorn & Harinck, 1997; Schutte, Malouff, Post-Gordon, & Rodasta, 1988). …

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