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May 1, 2013


The acquisition of assertiveness behavior is not specific to any discrete stage of childhood development but instead is a function of instruction, modeling, and rehearsal. Assertive behavior is acquired, practiced and refined as the individual develops. Problems with assertiveness can occur early in development in the form of overly shy or aggressive behavior, and later as social anxiety disorder and avoidant personality disorder. In outlining the facts about assertiveness, we have chosen to outline problem sets that can be conceptualized as due at least in part, to a deficit in assertiveness.

Prevalence. Low levels of assertive behavior, as evidenced by the presence of social anxiety disorder, is a highly prevalent problem. It is estimated that nearly 13.3% of all people in the US suffer from social anxiety at some point in their lives (Kessler et al., 1994). Social phobia is most prevalent amount people who are young (18–29 years of age), undereducated, single, and of lower socioeconomic status; social phobia is slightly less prevalent among the elderly (Magee, Eaton, Wittchen, Duckworth, M. P. & Mercer, V. (2006). McConagle, & Kessler, 1996). Avoidant personality disorder occurs in less than 1% of the general population (Reich, Yates, & Nduaguba, 1989; Zimmerman, & Coryell, 1990). Displays of aggressive behavior may be relatively common, yet the prevalence of extreme aggression as evidenced by the presence of antisocial personality disorder is relatively rare, occurring in only about 1–3% of the general population (Sutker, Bugg, & West, 1993).

Age at onset. Extreme shyness is known to be present in a large percentage of children. The mean age at onset for social phobia is 16 years old. The age at onset for social phobia occurs later than the onset for simple phobias but earlier than the onset for agoraphobia (Ost, 1987). Studies have found that the number of children with social phobia is increasing (Magee, et al., 1996). Aggression also appears to be expressed in early adolescence. In a study of African-American and Hispanic adolescent males it was found that children who had high levels of externalized behavio problems also tended to assert themselves in a hostile manner (Florsheim, Tolan & Gorman-Smith, 1996).

Gender. Although a larger percentage of men evidence assertive behavior than women men are also more likely to engage in aggressive behavior (Eagly & Steffen, 1986). Extreme aggression, as sometimes captured by antisocial personality disorder or psychopathy, is significantly more common in men (Dulit, Marin, & Frances, 1993; Sutker et al., 1993). Although women are represented more frequently among populations of persons experiencing anxiety disorders, social anxiety disorder occurs with relatively equal frequency across women and men. The gender ratio for social anxiety disorder is 1.4 to 1.0, females to males. Avoidant personality disorder also occurs equally across women and men. Taken together, these findings suggest that assertiveness may be an appropriate technique for men and women who engage in overly passive or overly aggressive behaviors.

Course. Extreme passivity, as captured by social phobia, begins in adolescence increases into the late 20s, and then declines in later life (Magee et al., 1996). Extreme aggression, as captured by antisocial personality disorder, begins in adolescence in the form of conduct disorder, increases through the 20s, and then decreases across the 40s (Hare, McPherson, & Forth, 1988).

Impairment and other demographic characteristics. Level of impairment is indicated by the problems experienced by people who are represented at the extremes of the assertiveness continuum. Problems associated with extreme passivity, can range from being bullied to experiencing repeat victimization by partners. Problems associated with aggression can range from suspension of privileges in childhood to serious negative legal consequences in adulthood.

There are differential finding for the impact of assertive behavior among ethnic groups, the impact seems entangled with socioeconomic status and culturally specific styles of communication (Malagady, Rogler, & Cortes, 1996; Zane, Sue, Hu, & Kwon, 1991). Social phobia is found to be equally prevalent among ethnic groups (Magee et al., 1996).

Given that assertive behavior occurs as a part of a broader interaction complex, the likelihood that an individual will engage in assertive behavior is a function of skill and performance competencies, reinforcement contingencies, motivational-affective and cognitive-evaluative factors. Behavioral explanations for the use of passive or aggressive strategies rather than assertive strategies emphasize opportunities for skills acquisition and mastery and reinforcement contingencies that have supported the use of passive or aggressive behaviors over time. Behavioral conceptualizations for passivity often emphasize early learning environments in which passive responding may have been modeled (e.g., care givers who were themselves anxious, shy, or in some other way less than assertive) or more assertive behavior punished (e.g., overly protective or dominating care givers). In the absence of opportunities for acquisition and reinforcement of other interaction strategies, passive behavior persists. Important to any complete behavioral conceptualization of passive behavior would be an evaluation of the reinforcement that is associated with current displays of passive behavior, that is, how is passivity currently “working” for the individual? Behaviors that are reinforced are repeated. Repeated engagement in passive behavior suggests repeated reinforcement of such behavior. Passive responding may be reinforced through the avoidance of responsibility and decision-making. With what amount of attention, positive or negative, are passive responses met? The individual employing passive strategies may need to reconcile his or her “active” influence on situations with the alleged passivity.

Aggressive behaviors can be learned through the observation of aggressive models and reinforced through their instrumental effects. Even in the absence of overt goal attainment, aggressive behaviors may be experienced as intrinsically reinforcing by virtue of the autonomic discharge associated with such behaviors. Aggressive behavior may serve as a socially sanctioned interaction style (Tedeschi & Felson, 1994). Aggressive behavior may also be a consequence of the absence of opportunities to acquire alternative social interaction strategies. Motivational-affective factors are important to patterned displays of passive and aggressive behavior. Although the affective experience of anger is not sufficien to explain aggressive behavior, feelings of anger do increase the likelihood that the actions of others will be experienced as aggressive and, thereby, elicit aggressive behavior.

Cognitive explanations for passive and aggressive responding would posit that outcome expectations are primary in determining the passive or aggressive response. The passive individual may look to the history of failures in making and/or refusing requests in deciding whether to attempt the ecommended assertive behavior. Outcome expectations may interfere with adoption of the “new” assertiveness. Such outcome expectations must be managed if the likelihood of assertive responding is to increase. The passive individual needs to be cautioned regarding the imperfect relationship between assertive responding and desired outcomes.

Initially, assertive responses may not meet with desired outcomes. It is the persistence of the assertive response that will ensure that the probability of the desired outcome increases over time. In the short run, then, the measure of successful assertion may not be the occurrence of a desired outcome but the mere assertive communication of one’s opinions, needs and/or limits.

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