Psychology. Adolescent Goals and Gender


Brief Literature Review

Beyond intellectual, physical and psychological development, significant social adaptation marks the progress of pre-adolescent children. At baseline, as toddlers, they are principally adept at one-on-one attachments but already commence the lifelong process of behaving according to the norms set by significant others. From then on, psychosocial stimulation, interactive play and mirroring become increasingly important. The pre-school child who alternates between selfish and helping, moody and outgoing, cooperative and given to taunting, dwelling on verbal rather than physical aggression soon enough prefers cooperative play in the lower grades and enjoys making fast friends. Young children learn it is not socially acceptable to give vent to their emotions. Otherwise, they are plainly motivated by their need for adult succor, reassurance and earning approval when they show off to their parents and other adults (Gowers, 2005).

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At the higher grades, in middle school and for the balance of adolescent life, the reliance on parental and adult-mentor values begins to weaken in favor of friends of their own gender and, eventually, the opposite sex. The newfound desire to be liked and popular has profound implications for social competence, social success, self-belief and attachment expectations in later adolescence and adulthood. Equally important, it seems, is that both older children and teenagers should perceive themselves to be liked. There is evidence that such a perception promotes ease at social interaction and presages even greater social competence later in adolescence (Sroufe, 2005; McElhaney, Antonishak, & Allen, 2008).

Popularity appears, however, to be a mixed blessing. It is moderated by the importance the individual child attaches to it and can predispose to reinforcement of negative, even downright self-destructive behavior. In the latter case, Schwartz, Gorman, Nakamoto and McKay (2006) found that enhanced popularity was associated with more truancy and deteriorating academic performance among adolescents nominated by their peers as more aggressive than the norm. Regarding the importance given to popularity, those who think little of it evince better adjustment even when peer-rated as “left out” or among the “least liked” in school. On the other hand, the adolescent who treasures broad peer acceptance but is none too popular — as rated by peers – experiences greater difficulty at social adjustment and growth (Prinstein & Aikins, 2004).

Significance of the Analysis

This is secondary research, a re-analysis of data generated by Chase and Dummer (1992). At the time, the localized survey sought to replicate prior research suggesting that adolescents were greatly motivated by popularity based on appearance, academic performance or physical prowess. Since it was presumed that gender would discriminate the propensity for gaining social acceptance through looks or athletics. similar findings from the instant data would reinforce gender expectations and imagery, not to say “stereotypes”.

Research Purpose, Hypotheses and Research Questions

In general, the purpose of this analysis is to learn whether gender differentiates the propensity of pre-teen children for seeking social acceptance and popularity.

Given the life stage in which subjects are, the applicable research questions are:

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  • RQ1: Do boys and girls differ in their expectation that sports or appearance is a viable way to gain popularity?
  • RQ2: Does gender discriminate the value of academic achievement as a way to gain or maintain popularity?
  • RQ3: Do male and female children have different expectations about financial status as a basis for popularity?

The overall hypothesis for this analysis is that sports and looks correlate highly with perceived student popularity. Boys are under pressure to produce bodies that are sporty and strong, while the pressure for girls is to be thin and sexually attractive (Frost, 2003).

  • H01: There is no difference by gender in personal-goal profiles of students.
  • H02: There is no difference by gender in importance given to academic performance as a basis for popularity.
  • H03: There is no difference by gender in importance given to being well-off as a basis for popularity.
  • H04: There is no difference by gender in importance given to sporting prowess as a basis for popularity.
  • H05: There is no difference by gender in importance given to looks as a basis for popularity.

Definition of Variables

The principal criterion variable in this analysis is gender. Others available in the database as intervening or independent variables are grade level (Grades 4, 5 and 6), age, race, and community type (urban, suburban or rural).

In relation to provoking popularity, the dependent variables are personal goals, academic performance, family means, sporting prowess, and appearance.


Research Approach, Procedures and Data Collection

The Chase and Dummer (1992) project employed a quantitative approach and a cross-sectional research design. That is, the study deployed a multiple-choice, close-ended scale designed to assess the goal orientation of children in the intermediate grades at one location and one point in time.

Sampling Frame

Chase and Dummer reported that “Subjects were both male and female students in grades 4-6 from three school districts in Ingham and Clinton Counties, Michigan” (1992, p. 1). The researchers employed stratified sampling, using as the first stratum the class of the surrounding community: urban, suburban, and rural school districts. For reasons unexplained, the two psychologists opted to derive approximately one-third of sample from each locale.

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A total of 478 children participated from Brentwood Elementary, Brentwood Middle, Ridge, Sand, Eureka, Brown, Main, Portage, and Westdale Middle School.

Measures and Study Instruments

The authors appear to have formulated a custom short form for the purposes of their research:

Students indicated whether good grades, athletic ability, or popularity was most important to them. They also ranked four factors: grades, sports, looks, and money, in order of their importance for popularity. The questionnaire also asked for gender, grade level, and other demographic information. (Chase & Dummer, 1992, p. 2)

Data Analyses Performed According to Research Questions and Hypotheses

After the raw data was inputted into SPSS version 16, validity and range checks were performed against the possibility of errors in conversion or manual entry. Given the stated research purpose and questions, principal cross-tabulation was done against gender.

Where data processing outcomes seemed to bolster or disprove the afore-mentioned null hypotheses, illustrative summary tables and charts were generated to highlight relative frequencies or proportions. In addition, contingency tables were constructed, with gender as the main break.

First-line analysis for variation by gender consisted of comparing the rank profiles and the “top box scores”, the proportion that ranked each popularity factor first. The appropriate statistical tests for significance of differences were: a) Chi-square tests to assess whether goals are related to gender; b) A two-sample t-test since the gender variable has two levels; c) Correlation analysis (where low correlation across genders suggests that the independent variable is meaningful); and, d) the Mann-Whitney U tests (Field, 2009).


As it turned, the sample was somewhat skewed toward girls (251 subjects) whereas boys comprised just 227 or 47.5% of the total. Queried about the goals they believed in, both genders attested to the primacy of academic achievement. Slightly more than half of both genders (see Table 1 overleaf and Fig. 1, page 7) agreed that attaining good grades was the most desirable outcome.

On visual inspection, they differ with respect to the secondary goals sports and popularity. Boys were more than twice as likely to desire prowess at sports as girls. The latter, on the other hand, were substantially more interested in gaining popularity.

Table 1: Goal Preferences by Gender.

Goals * Gender Crosstabulation
Boy Girl Total
Goals Grades Count 117 130 247
% within Gender 51.5% 51.8% 51.7%
Sports Count 60 30 90
% within Gender 26.4% 12.0% 18.8%
Popular Count 50 91 141
% within Gender 22.0% 36.3% 29.5%
Total Count 227 251 478
% within Gender 100.0% 100.0% 100.0%

Beyond the fundamental need to perform satisfactorily in school, boys and girls seem to differ on what should matter next. Boys count sports second in desirability and looks last. On the other hand, girls consider popularity their second most desirable outcome in school and relegate sports prowess to last place. The result of the chi-square test for goodness of fit (see Table 2 overleaf) can be summarized in the form:

“The relationship is significant (χ2 (1) = 21.455, p <.001).”

Since the computed result for Pearson’s Chi-Square is so high that the significance statistic is lower than the typical threshold α < 0.5 in the social sciences, one concludes that the difference in second- and third-ranked choices across gender is so large it is likely to occur less than once in a thousand re-samplings of the age cohort. One must therefore reject H01: “There is no difference by gender in personal-goal profiles of students” and accept the alternative: boys and girls do differ in the importance they assign to sports or popularity secondary to academic achievement.

Table 2: Result of the Chi-Square Test for Goal Desirability by Gender.

Chi-Square Tests
Value df Asymp. Sig. (2-sided)
Pearson Chi-Square 21.455a 2 .000
Likelihood Ratio 21.769 2 .000
Linear-by-Linear Association 3.048 1 .081
N of Valid Cases 478

a. 0 cells (.0%) have expected count less than 5. The minimum expected count is 42.74.

How the Genders Differ on Desired Goals.
Figure 1: How the Genders Differ on Desired Goals.

The next four null hypotheses are addressed by an independent samples t-test. The summary of mean rankings (Table 3 below) bolsters the findings from Question 1. That is, boys give primacy to sports as a means for gaining popularity while girls tend to rank looks ahead of every other consideration.

Table 3: Result of the Independent Samples T-test for Mean Rank of factors Held Important for Popularity.

Group Statistics
Gender N Mean Std. Deviation Std. Error Mean
Importance of grades Boy 227 2.65 1.051 .070
Girl 251 2.59 1.108 .070
Importance of sports skill Boy 227 1.66 .860 .057
Girl 251 2.47 .926 .058
Importance of looks Boy 227 2.51 1.041 .069
Girl 251 1.73 .957 .060
Importance of money Boy 227 3.19 .941 .062
Girl 251 3.21 .958 .060

Note: Mean Rank breaks down as 1 = “Ranks first”, 2 = “Second”, 3 = “Third” and 4 = Ranks fourth.

Following prowess in sports, boys typically rank looks second and grades a close third. Girls tend to rank skill at sports second and academics third as springboards for popularity. So the data in fact shows that the genders agree on which “accomp-lishments” deserve first and second place, albeit the priority is switched across genders. Both genders also agree that financial status deserves the least consideration as a means for becoming more popular.

The T test output itself (Table 4 below) requires due consideration for the (parametric) assumption about equality of variances. This is resolved by the Levene’s Test component of the statistical analysis. When the significance statistic associated with the F value meets the α < 0.05 threshold, the hypothesis about variances being equal does not hold and the alternative t and significance values therefore apply. This is the case for “looks”: since equal variances do not hold across genders, the alternative T value of 8.43 applies. Since the associated p < 0.0001, we reject H05 and accept the alternative that the belief in looks does differ by gender.

Table 4: The Independent Samples T Test and Levene’s Test for Equality of Variances.

Popularity “Triggers” Equal Variances F Sig. t df Sig. (2-tailed)
Grades Assumed 2.0385 0.1540 0.6698 476 0.5033
Not Assumed 0.6715 475 0.5022
Sports Assumed 2.5952 0.1079 -9.9686 476 0.0000
Not Assumed -10.0059 476 0.0000
Looks Assumed 4.1059 0.0433 8.4645 476 0.0000
Not Assumed 8.4291 460 0.0000
Money Assumed 0.6996 0.4033 -0.2546 476 0.7992
Not Assumed -0.2548 473 0.7990

The outcome for “sports” is the same. The hypothesis about equality of variances cannot be rejected (p = 0.108). The values for T and significance statistic that apply are therefore (±)9.9686 and p < 0.0001, respectively. Given an extremely low likelihood that the difference between boys and girls is due to random variation alone, we reject H04 and accept the alternative that boys and girls assign differing importance to sporting skill as a basis for popularity.

With respect to the first- and fourth-ranked basis for popularity – academic achievement and money – the T test results are too low to permit H02:and H03: to be rejected.

Implications and limitations

Implications of the Analysis Performed, and Relationship to Literature


The authors cite no statistics to demonstrate validity and reliability, e.g. Cronbach’s α for internal consistency (Field, 2009). As to externally derived reliability, the study at hand is cross-sectional in nature and is therefore most applicable to the cohort and location where it was conducted. Further research is required to reveal whether other psychologists had replicated the Chase and Dummer (1992) study and if so, how well subsequent results matched initial findings. Only then can one conclude that the findings in this analysis can be projected (or not) to the age cohort nationwide and for the future, unless some social change occurs to radically alter the attitudes and expectations of grade-school children.


Chase, M. A. & Dummer, G. M. (1992). The role of sports as a social determinant for children. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 63: 418-424.

Field, A. (2009). Discovering statistics using SPSS (3rd ed.). Los Angeles, CA: Sage.

Frost, L. (2003). Doing bodies differently? Gender, youth, appearance and damage. Journal of Youth Studies, 6 (1) 53 – 70. Web.

Gowers, S. G., (Ed.). (2005). Seminars in child and adolescent psychiatry (2nd ed.). London: Royal College of Psychiatrists.

McElhaney, K. B., Antonishak, J. & Allen, J. P. (2008). “They like me, they like me not”: Popularity and adolescents’ perceptions of acceptance predicting social functioning over time. Child Development, 79: 720–731. Web.

Prinstein, M. J. & Aikins, J. W. (2004). Cognitive moderators of the longitudinal association between peer rejection and adolescent depressive symptoms. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 32: 147–158.

Schwartz, D., Gorman, A. H., Nakamoto, J. & McKay, T. (2006). Popularity, social acceptance, and aggression in adolescent peer groups: Links with academic performance and school attendance. Developmental Psychology, 42 (6) 1116–1127. Web.

Sroufe, L. A. (2005). Attachment and development: A prospective, longitudinal study from birth to adulthood. Attachment and Human Development, 7: 349–367.

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