In the 2004 movie "Mean Girls," audiences got a realistic peek into "girl world" -- how teenage girls vie for boys and popularity in high school, usually stooping to abusive, bullying behavior against their so-called friends.

While it’s no surprise that many popular kids also tend to be bullies, a new study by researchers at the University of California, Davis found just how popular a teen is tends to dictate how much bullying he or she will do.

Interestingly, those at the very top of the high school food chain tend to be the least aggressive.

Second tier bullies

However, the study found kids who are popular, but not the most popular in their class are the ones most likely to torment their classmates.

“Our findings underscore the argument that, for the most part, attaining and maintaining a high social status likely involves some level of antagonistic behavior,” said Robert Faris, an assistant professor of sociology at UC Davis.

While these findings may not be surprising to people who were tormented in middle or high school, the study, co-written by UC Davis sociology professor Diane Felmlee, did reveal something that goes against the stereotype of bullies being angry loners: the kids at the very bottom of the social ladder tend to be less aggressive with their classmates, just like the very popular kids.

The rationale

However, Faris said the reasons for non-bullying behavior in both groups are not the same.

“The fact that they both have reduced levels of aggression is true, but it can be attributed to quite different things,” he noted. “The ones at the bottom don’t have the social power or as much capacity to be aggressive whereas the ones at the top have all that power, but don’t need to use it.”

Students’ popularity was determined by how central they were in their school’s web of friendships. The authors define aggression as behavior directed toward harming or causing pain to another. It can be physical (hitting, shoving or kicking), verbal (name-calling or threats) or indirect (spreading rumors or ostracism).

The climbers

In general, the study, which followed kids over the course of a school year, found increases in social status for both males and females are accompanied by subsequent increases in aggression until a student approaches the top of the social hierarchy.

According to the researchers, adolescents in the top two percent of the social hierarchy -- where aggression peaks -- have an average aggression rate that is 28 percent greater than students at the very bottom and 40 percent greater than students at the very top.

Aggression rate was calculated based on the number of classmates a student victimized in the past three months.

“Aggression usually requires some degree of social support, power or influence,” Faris said. “This is mostly because students expect to see each other on a daily basis at school and any act of aggression brings risk of retaliation. Those at the center of the web of social ties are, we believe, more powerful and may deter retribution.”

Mellowing out

Yet, those students at the very top of the social hierarchy, who seemingly possess the most social capacity for aggressiveness, generally aren’t aggressive.

“If an adolescent at the top of the social hierarchy were to act aggressively towards his or her peers, such action could signal insecurity or weakness rather than cement the student’s position,” said Faris. “And, it’s possible that, at the highest level, they may receive more benefits from being pro-social and kind.”

Faris also acknowledged the possibility that kids at the top level are “somehow different” and “not disposed to aggressiveness in the first place.”

Demographics

The study relied on data from The Context of Adolescent Substance Use survey, a longitudinal survey of adolescents at 19 public schools in three counties in North Carolina that began in the spring of 2002 and was based on responses from 3,722 eighth-, ninth- and 10th -grade students who participated during the 2004-5 school year.

While the study focuses on a sample of small-town and rural North Carolina students, Faris expects similar results in bigger cities.

“I would be surprised if kids in New York City or L.A. were radically different than kids in North Carolina,” said Faris.

As for policy implications of the study, Faris said interventions targeted specifically at aggressive kids or victims miss the point.

“I would start by focusing on the kids who are not involved and work on encouraging them to be less passive or approving of these sorts of antagonistic relationships,” he said. “It’s through these kids who are not involved that the aggressive kids get their power.”

The study is published in the February issue of the American Sociological Review.