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The latest research findings and discoveries from U of T faculty and students

Bar Brawls

It seems young men may fight primarily to gain the approval of … other men

April 21, 2011

Photo by Chris Granger

Photo by Chris Granger

When a young man gets into a bar fight it might not be just the booze that’s to blame. Instead, the problem might be that he thinks that other young men expect him to fight. Ironically, they probably don’t, at least not as much as the brawler believes they do.

People do all sorts of things because they think their peers will approve, and fighting is no different. Young men fight in part because they think that their peers expect them to. But it turns out that most young men overestimate how much their peers approve of fighting. And the more the man overestimates peer approval for fighting, the more likely he is to get in a fight.

That’s according to Samantha Wells, Paul F. Tremblay and Kathryn Graham of the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, who reported the findings in a paper in Addictive Behaviors.

The Dalla Lana School researchers were following up on previous studies that show that young people tend to overestimate peer approval for risky behaviour such as heavy drinking, and that the perceived approval might help cause the behaviour.

Aggression is surprisingly common among young people, and it often happens in bars. One study found that 33 per cent of men and 20 per cent of women between the ages of 18 and 30 had experienced aggression in the previous year (as either perpetrator victim), and that bars were the most common location for aggression. In a 2006 study of Toronto drinking establishments, Wells and Graham sent observers into 118 large drinking establishments for two hours over 25 weekend nights. The observers recorded at least one aggressive encounter in about 40 per cent of the visits.

For the current study, the researchers asked 525 young adult male university and community college students whether they approved of aggressive responses to a number of situations, including defending oneself, defending a friend, defending a girlfriend, and aggression in general. They also asked whether they thought other young men and women would approve.

In all cases, the men reported on average that they thought peers would approve of aggression more than they would. And the higher they thought peer approval was, the more likely they were to have been in a fight in the last year.

One other interesting finding – the men’s perception of how much they thought women approved of fighting didn’t affect how often they got into fights. The only approval the young men worry about when it comes to aggression, it seems, is the approval of other young men.

The researchers suggest that education campaigns that tell young men that their peers don’t approve of fighting as much as they think might be effective in reducing bar fights.


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