“I Felt Like a Hero:” Adolescents’ Understanding of Resolution-Promoting and Vengeful Actions on Behalf of Their Peers


Bystander intervention on behalf of victims of peer aggression is credited with reducing victimization, yet little is known about how bystanders evaluate their intervention efforts. African-, European-, Mexican-, and Native-American adolescents (N = 266) between 13 and 18 years (Mage = 15.0, 54% female) recounted vengeful and peaceful responses to a peer’s victimization. For comparison, they also described acts of personal revenge. Youth’s explanations of how they evaluated each action were coded for goals and outcomes. Befitting its moral complexity, self-evaluative rationales for third-party revenge cited more goals than the other two conditions. References to benevolence and lack thereof were more frequent after third-party revenge compared to personal revenge. Concerns that security was compromised and that actions contradicted self-direction were high after both types of revenge. Third-party resolution promoted benevolence, competence, self-direction, and security more than third-party revenge. Epistemic network analyses and thematic excerpts revealed the centrality of benevolence goals in adolescents’ self-evaluative thinking. Self-focused and identity-relevant goals were cited in concert with benevolence after third-party intervention.

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We are grateful for the careful work of coders, Saejin Kwak Tanguay, Hannah A. Nguyen, and Gurdeep Gill, and very appreciative of interviewers and community members for their deep commitment to youth.

Authors’ Contributions

KF conceived of the study, participated in its design, hypothesis generation, planned analyses, and manuscript writing; KM participated in hypothesis generation, planned analyses, data interpretation and manuscript writing; AO participated in measurement development, study coordination, interpretation of the qualitative data, and manuscript writing; KG reviewed literature and performed statistical analyses; BE participated in the design and execution of network analyses. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.


This research was supported by a grant from the National Institute of Justice (2015-CK-BX-0022) to the first author. Development of Epistemic Network Analysis was funded in part by the National Science Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Opinions or points of view expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice, other funding agencies, cooperating institutions, or other individuals.

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Correspondence to Karin S. Frey.

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Ethical Approval

This study was approved by the Institutional Review Boards of the University of Washington and the National Institute of Justice. When appropriate, a research permit was obtained from tribal authorities. This study was performed in accordance with the ethical standards as laid down in the 1964 Declaration of Helsinki and its later amendments.

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Informed consent was obtained from parents or guardians and informed assent was obtained from the interviewees.

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Supplementary information


Appendix A. Subsample F-values for citation goal frequencies as a function of action type, goal and outcome

  df F p Partial eta 2
Action 2.00 17.96 <0.001 0.086
Action × ethnicity 6.00 < 1 ns 0.008
Within person error 374.20    
Goal 4.22 109.59 <0.001 0.365
Goal × ethnicity 12.67 2.37 0.002 0.036
Within person error 805.11    
Outcome 1.38 240.39 <0.001 0.556
Outcome × ethnicity 4.14 2.63 0.033 0.040
Within person error 263.51    
Action × goal 7.39 58.55 <0.001 0.235
Action × goal × ethnicity 22.16 < 1 ns 0.011
Within person error 473.42    
Action × outcome 2.85 80.85 <0.001 0.297
Action × outcome × ethnicity 8.55 1.52 ns 0.023
Within person error 244.86    
Goal × outcome 6.63 42.68 < 0.001 0.183
Goal × outcome × ethnicity 19.90 1.31 ns 0.020
Within person error 6233.30    
Action × goal × outcome 11.21 36.12 <0.001 0.159
Action × goal × outcome × ethnicity 33.62 1.26 ns 0.019
Within person error 1047.61    
Ethnicity 3 < 1 ns 0.015
Between person error 60.47    

Degrees of freedom have Green-Geisser adjustments due to sphericity violations. N = 195

Appendix B. Goals and outcomes cited when appraising actions

Columns show mean frequencies of citations for each action. Error bars show standard deviations

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Frey, K.S., McDonald, K.L., Onyewuenyi, A.C. et al. “I Felt Like a Hero:” Adolescents’ Understanding of Resolution-Promoting and Vengeful Actions on Behalf of Their Peers. J Youth Adolescence 50, 521–535 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10964-020-01346-3

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  • Third-Party revenge
  • Identity
  • Adolescents
  • Benevolence
  • Competence
  • Self-direction