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How do bullies think? What do they feel when they are bullying others? What motivates them to act so cruelly? This information will help you get inside the minds of bullies to better understand the bully psychology.

How bullying starts

Many incidents of bullying start because feuds between children escalate until the conflict takes on a sinister or predatory nature, not because a schoolyard dictator is prowling for victims. As bullying expert Rosalind Wiseman puts it, “think about the last time you got an edgy e-mail. Weren’t you tempted to fire off something equally cutting? Now imagine you’re 14, with an adolescent’s poor impulse control. Add to the mix that today’s technology makes it extremely easy for the line between target and perpetrator to blur. For example, Boy A breaks up with a girl and Boy B asks her out. So A goes on Facebook and spreads horrible rumors about B, and B retaliates in kind, believing his actions are justifiable self-defense. Now everybody’s gone over the top.” (Wiseman, 2010, p. 97)

“If we look at it over the long haul and across situations (home, neighborhood, and school), we can see that there are few kids who are exclusively bullies. Most have experienced both roles in one way or another, at one time or another in their lives.”
– Garbarino & deLara (2002, p. 85)

Although there are kids who are bullies by nature, a significant portion of bullying involves kids who are bullies by circumstance. They don’t make a habit of indiscriminately attacking others, but will engage in bullying behavior when it suits their needs or when they are called upon to do so by friends. Thus it helps to understand how otherwise good kids can engage in behavior that an outsider would consider utterly despicable.

“Kids are often blind to their role in bullying and harassment. They simultaneously recognize the alien character of some of their peers and minimize the impact of any targeting of kids who are different. They may see other schools as having bullies and other students as being bullies, but rarely do they see it in themselves.”
-Garbarino & deLara (2002, p. 80)

Bully psychology: Why every bully has their reasons

Bullying is always something that other kids do. If you were to walk into a classroom and say, “raise your hand if you’re a bully,” I very much doubt you’d find any kids who raised their hands. Yet in that same classroom of 30 students, according to statistics, you’d have around 6 kids who were actively involved in bullying their peers in the very recent past. Obviously, there’s a disconnect between a youth’s perception of what a bully is and the bullying that takes place in everyday life.

The obvious answer to this riddle is to simply say that bullies are of course going to lie and will not openly admit to being a bully. But the truth is much more complicated than that. It follows a similar logic to the old adage that says “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” It’s easy to recognize bullying when it happens to you. But when it comes to the hostility a teen may engage in themselves, that’s different. When you’re mean to others, it’s because you have a reason to do it. It’s because someone is a freak or they deserve it, or because their morals/actions/dress/mannerisms are such that they are “asking for it.”

“I’m never mean to people without a reason.”  – A 12-year-old Queen Bee (Wiseman, 2009)

Much of this has to do with our bully culture. As we explore in our section on how the media influences bullying, our culture is full of messages that teach kids it’s OK to go after someone else – so long as you’ve decided they deserve it. They see examples where punishing those who are different is not just acceptable, but in many circumstances is even celebrated and heralded as a noble act. (For example, when someone’s morals or value system differs from your own.) They are exposed to example after example where feuding between groups is presented as the natural order of things or a battle of good versus evil, and certainly not labeled with the word “bullying,” though that’s often precisely what it is. They grow up watching adults subtly (and not so subtly) bully others in the community labeled as morally depraved or different, and so they come to see bullying as a natural part of the social order – a way to “correct” others who are different and punish them according to established norms. Henceforth, it’s quite easy for a youth to rationalize away bullying behavior without considering themselves a bully in the traditional sense.

Additionally, motivations for bullying are often subconscious. One of the primary reasons for bullying is that putting someone down can give your own ego a little self-esteem boosting dose of superiority complex. But of course, bullies will never admit that this is why they engage in such behavior, and are rarely conscious of such a motivation themselves. With little to no thoughtful effort, their brain will rationalize this hostility according to any number of possible excuses.

It’s difficult to acknowledge what you aren’t consciously aware of yourself, and so even kids whose behavior seems very stereotypical of a bully by outside observers may fail to make this connection themselves. To them, their behavior seems completely justified, and is cloaked under an array of excuses. Add to this mix the power of group loyalty (even adults are easily swayed by blind obedience to their group, whether it’s a sports team or a country) and you can start to see why millions of kids could be involved in bullying without ever considering themselves a bully.

Bully psychology and the use of power

“The most important characteristic of bullies is that they know how to use power. We would argue that people who are in leadership positions often have a similar sort of power: the central issue is how the power is used.”
– Sullovan, Cleary & Sullovan (2004, p. 15)

Bullying is about the exploitation and misuse of power disparities. From a young age, ALL kids will try to use whatever possible advantages they have to secure benefits for themselves. Cute children learn how to flirt with and woo others. Little girls figure out what powers of persuasion will keep Daddy firmly wrapped around their little finger. Things like discipline and parenting, for better or worse, teach children ways of influencing and exerting power over others. It’s perfectly normal for kids to use their core strengths in the pursuit of personal gain. Yet in most cases, there are social-emotional checks and balances that restrain kids from using their power without regard for others.

Bullies are people who, for one reason or another, have learned to use this power in exploitive ways without the normal checks against such use. Some kids may have always been bigger or more aggressive from a young age, and so through classic Pavlonian conditioning, they simply learned inappropriate ways of exerting power because this is what’s always worked. In other situations different factors may lead a youth to misuse power in ways that are destructive to others:

* They make excuses for this use of power that allows them to bypass their normal morals and emphatic responses. History shows that even the most horrific crimes are easily rationalized when one is convinced of their reasons. Genocides, for example, are never a problem of consciously evil motives in those who commit the acts. Quite the contrary: the problem is that those perpetrating these evil acts have been fooled into believing their actions are justified. The Catholic priests who recently hacked little children to death with machetes in the Rwandan genocide were convinced these actions were righteous. When one has their reasons, no amount of cruelty is beyond justification.

* Some bullies may have been treated badly themselves, and so their experiences have taught them that exploiting your power over others is simply what people do. They see it as how the world works. After all, that’s what others have done to them or it’s what they’ve witnessed in the family environment at home.

* They may recognize bullying as wrong and may even have empathy towards the victim, yet the perceived rewards that they’ll receive through bullying (a potential friend, social status, etc.) are powerful enough to override the messages from their conscience.

The thrill of bullying: Why seeing others suffer can be enjoyable

Sadly, much like the potential for targeted aggression or warfare, the ability to find pleasure in someone else’s pain and torment is something we all have the capacity for. This phenomenon is generally referred to as shadenfreude, and produces a measurable reward in the brain. “Any time someone suffers a misfortune, that’s an opportunity,” says social psychologist Richard H. Smith. “Life is essentially relativistic; (others’) misfortunes are good for the self.” Shadenfreude registers in the brain as a distinct form of pleasure, comparable to the satisfaction one gets from eating a good meal. (Anthes, 2010)

Bullies are often youth who become hooked on these pleasurable feelings. Normally, shadenfreude is restricted to finding enjoyment in the suffering of those we don’t like or are in competition with. In all other circumstances, empathy should be the normal and appropriate response. Yet many bullies – and aggressive bullies in particular – seem to feel this pleasure indiscriminately, so that watching anyone suffer is a rewarding experience.

The Brains of bullies: Wired for aggression?

This tendency towards taking pleasure in others’ pain can be measured in brain scans. Researchers at the University of Chicago used fMRI scans to monitor the emotional reactions of teenagers as they watched video clips of strangers getting hurt either as the result of accidents (such as having a bowl dropped on their hands or deliberate cruelty such as having a bully stomp on them). Most people tend to respond to such scenes with empathy. Their mirror neurons light up and they show activation in their own pain centers as they mirror the person’s misfortune. Teens with a history of violent behavior and bullying, on the other hand, showed increased activity in their brain’s pleasure and reward centers. (Quill, 2009)

“It just dumbfounded us,” said researcher Dr. Benjamin Lahey. “They were not only indifferent to the pain – they loved it.” (Week, 2008) Somehow, in the brains of bullies, schadenfreude is taken to a whole new level.

We shouldn’t generalize these findings to all bullies. After all, relational bullies (those who bully to further their own interests) may have completely normal responses. Yet they still might find pleasure in bullying, since it involves the destruction of someone they consider a rival.

Beyond low self-esteem: The character of bullies

It’s commonly assumed that all bullies think poorly of themselves or have low self-esteem, and that this is why they bully. Describing some research, Malcolm L. Smith writes that “it turns out that bullies actually have higher self-esteem than their peers, and well meaning adults were actually making the problems worse. Bullies are kids with problems, but low self-esteem is usually not one of them.” (Smith, 2010, p. 7) Although we would argue that low self-esteem is indeed a factor in a significant number of cases, it’s by no means a universal trait of bullies. Bullying behavior can also be the result of high narcissism or selfishness, which usually arises in youth who think quite highly of themselves. Their high self-perception contributes to a holier-than-thou belief in themselves, which carries over into an attitude where they feel they should be allowed to treat other, less-awesome kids like crap. Bullying can also be a function of popularity – something the socially elite kids feel entitled to do. So although many bullies are insecure and are covering for feelings of low self-worth, there are many more whose behavior is driven by other character flaws.

Some bullies can appear to be model youth and are very adept at gaining the favor of adults. Others may take on more of a rebel persona, and commonly engage in risky or delinquent behaviors. Nansel et al. (2001, p. 2099) reported that “persons who bullied others were more likely to be involved in other problem behaviors such as drinking alcohol and smoking. They showed poorer school adjustment, both in terms of academic achievement and perceived school climate. Yet they reported greater ease of making friends, indicating that bullies are not socially isolated.” This apparent ease at making friends may come as a surprise to many people, yet it’s important to note that few bullies are indiscriminately hostile towards everyone. As another pair of researchers write, “Most of the time, even if you have a friend who tends to bully or persistently tease and give a hard time to other kids, as long as you know that he is not going to do the same to you, you can feel safe and confident in that relationship.” (Garbarino & deLara, 2002, p. 72) And the same knowledge of social dynamics that makes certain bullies so adept at attacking others where it hurts most can also be flipped around and used to charm when it suits their needs. Some bullies can flip this switch between charm and abuse as easily as they might flick on a light.

All of this just goes to highlight the fact that there is no stereotypical bully. Different bullies can have very different motivations and possess a very different psychological makeup.

The role of the bystander

Bullying occurs within a larger social structure, and bystanders tend to fall into one of several roles:

1. Assistants – These people join in the attacks, and often fall into the category of passive bullies.

2. Reinforcers – These students may not participate themselves, but they serve as an audience for the bully. They may openly egg the bully on or encourage their behavior, or they may simply watch with intrigue without saying a word. Bystanders can offer reinforcement and encouragement to a bully merely by cracking a smile or laughing at the bully’s comments. Either way, they participate by allowing a bully an audience for which to put on their show.

3. Outsiders – These are kids who usually don’t like the bullying and don’t agree with what is going on, but remain silent. They stay around the periphery, witnessing but not getting involved.

4. Defenders – These are the rare few kids who possess both morals that tell them the bullying is wrong, and the courage to try to intervene. They may comfort the victim afterwards, try to intervene on the victim’s behalf, or report the bully. Sadly, few bullied children are lucky enough to have defenders in their midst.

It takes a group to allow bullying to thrive, and no bully would have free reign to conduct their torment without the passive consent, encouragement, or silence of the group. This bully psychology is as much about group dynamics as it is the particular bully.

Group psychology is extremely powerful, and has a direct impact on bullying. A desire to please the group actually alters a subject’s perception of reality in experiments – even when it comes to something as basic as a counting task or the recollection of something they just witnessed. (PBS, 11-16-2009) So if even grown adults can adjust their grasp of kindergarten math whenever the group says the answer is different, imagine how hard it is for youth to abstain when the majority of peers have decided that a certain kid is an outcast. Bullying is almost always a group activity. Rarely does it occur with just one bully and one victim.

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