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Does a tattoo mark you out as an aggressive rebel?

by on 2015/10/28

“People with tattoos are more likely to be aggressive” suggested a recent headline in the Telegraph, with similar reports appearing in the Guardian, Daily Mail and the Independent among others. With about 1 in 5 adults in the UK sporting a tattoo, it’s certainly interesting to explore what factors might predict the likelihood of getting one versus not. So let’s get under the skin of the recent headlines.

What did the researcher actually do?

The current study was led by Viren Swami, a Professor of Social Psychology at Anglia Ruskin University. The study, published in the journal Body Image, was motivated by previous research and prevailing stereotypes that tattoos would be more common in more rebellious or aggressive individuals. Swami and his colleagues suggested that such notions might be out of date, particularly given the mainstream rise in the popularity of tattoos.

The research team recruited participants from the Greater London area, ranging in age from 20 to 58 years old (the average age being just under 30), with almost equal numbers of men and women. Participants reported if they had tattoos, and if so, how many. They also completed questionnaires to assess their aggression and rebelliousness.

In the 378 participants recruited, one quarter reported having a tattoo, and in the tattooed group, the number of tattoos ranged from 1 to 12. There was no difference in the proportion of men and women who reported having a tattoo versus not, or in the number of tattoos. In addition, the groups with and without tattoos didn’t differ in terms of age, educational attainment or ethnicity.

In their main analysis, the researchers reported that those with tattoos had higher levels of verbal aggression (an example of the item used to assess this being “When people annoy me, I may tell them what I think of them”), anger (“I have trouble controlling my temper”) and reactive rebelliousness (“If you get yelled at by someone in authority, would you (a) get angry and argue back; (b) try hard to avoid an argument; or (c) not sure?”).

In offering an explanation for these associations, the authors suggested the following: “people who have higher reactive rebelliousness may respond to disappointing and frustrating events by getting tattooed. That is, when these individuals experience a negative emotional event, they may be more likely to react by pursuing an act that is perceived as defiant or oppositional, namely getting tattooed. In this view, what is important is that the act of tattooing is perceived as rebellious, or more generally that tattoos can be employed as a communicative signifier of defiance or dissent.” In terms of the associations between having a tattoo and anger and aggression, the authors suggest it may simply be that individuals higher on these traits may use tattoos as “an enactment of aggression” or that the tattoo is a socially acceptable way of expressing their anger.

The authors note, however, that the strength of these associations would be considered small. That is, knowing if someone has tattoos wouldn’t be a useful predictor of their level of aggressiveness, or vice versa. It’s important to note that the sample is also relatively small when the almost 40-year age range is considered. Given the societal changes in the acceptance and acceptability of tattoos, it would be interesting to see how different personal and lifestyle characteristics might be associated with having tattoos and whether those predictors are changing over time. The authors also suggest that it might not be having a tattoo that is the important thing to measure, but rather the content of the tattoo (does the message it convey show an aggressive or rebellious streak?).

What did the media say?

Given the topic, the media reporting was surprisingly low key, perhaps highlighting the increased visibility and acceptability of tattoos versus previous generations. From the sources above, there were no sensational references, in the headlines at least, to tattoos marking an individual as more likely to be a danger to society. On the whole, the reporting of the methods and findings were accurate. This might be partly a result of the study using one of the simplest designs: asking people to complete questionnaires on a number of factors, with the researchers then analysing those factors to see what things might be associated. The clarity of reporting might also be due to the relatively clear press release that accompanied the study. While the press release clearly gave the overall findings and some of the possible explanations, it unfortunately didn’t include the caveat in the published study that these associations were very small. In fact, a statement in the press release that “despite now being mainstream, UK adults with tattoos are still more aggressive and rebellious than those without” might give the impression the association is much greater than in reality.

While generally clearly reported, there were a few small inaccuracies. The Telegraph for example noted “a new study has suggested that tattoos send out a clear, singular message: that their wearer more likely to be aggressive and rebellious.” No, the study really didn’t say that. Not even close. Though the reporter then goes on to refer to Professor Swami by the wrong gender pronoun, so the piece may not have been as closely fact-checked as it should have been.

Interestingly, while the Guardian led with the headline “Study restores link between tattoos and anger”, the piece then started with an odd reference to Samantha Cameron, wife of British Prime Minster David, as having a tattoo. That anecdote, they believed, meant that previous research linking tattoos and aggression had to be wrong. The reference to the link between tattoos and anger being restored in the headline, is then entirely based on the somewhat flippant remark. While meant in a humorous tone (the piece was in the Fashion section), it unfortunately misunderstands and misrepresents how research works: whenever we see a link between one factor and another, there will always be cases that don’t conform to that pattern. It’s very rare for things to be linked 100% of the time, and in most cases particularly where behaviours or lifestyle factors are concerned, the strength of the association would be far lower. Citing an example, or even several examples, doesn’t diminish the existence of an association across a group or population. Oddly, the Daily Mail’s opening also mentioned Samantha Cameron’s tattoo, but they did then use it in a slightly more useful way; it was noted her tattoo is of a dolphin, highlighting how the content of a tattoo may be more illustrative of an individual’s character than having one versus not.

The Guardian report also made an error in saying that “And the more tattoos they have, it found, the more angry and rebellious they are.” The research reported an association between having more tattoos and higher level of anger, but when they included all the different measures together, that was no longer the case. The study specifically said there was no association between number of tattoos and rebelliousness.

The bottom line.

While interesting, the results do not suggest you should avoid someone with a tattoo for fear they’re an angry rebel. Tattooing might be associated with those traits at a group level (albeit in a very small way), but it’s not predictive of an individual’s likely behaviour.

Swami, V. et al. (2015). Are tattooed adults really more aggressive and rebellious than those without tattoos? Body Image. DOI: 10.1016/j.bodyim.2015.09.001

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