Bullying Behaviour

Bullies are present throughout all walks of life due to inherent power systems in social hierarchies. You may have come across a bully yourself or witnessed someone else being bullied. Often, it is hard to deal with bullying, as the situation that provokes such behaviours results from vulnerability in the first place. This explanation will explore bullying behaviour from a psychological perspective. 

Bullying Behaviour Bullying Behaviour

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Table of contents
    • First, we will define bullying behaviour.
    • Then we will look at some behavioural indicators of bullying.
    • After, we will show some examples of bullying behaviour.
    • Then we will delve into psychological explanations for bullying behaviour, including biological, individual differences and social reasons.
    • Finally, we give some examples of modifying bullying behaviour.

    Bullying Behaviour, one wooden pawn separated from others suggesting bullying, StudySmarterFig. 1: Bullying behaviour can manifest in a number of ways.

    Definition of Bullying Behaviour

    So, what exactly is bullying? What behaviours would we define as bullying, and from where does this behaviour come?

    Bullying is aggressive behaviour that harms an individual (through various means) by misusing power.

    Behavioural Indicators of Bullying

    Several behavioural indicators or changes result from bullying that the victim should look out for. These can be of a wide range, and some include:

    • Depression
    • Anxiety
    • Low self-esteem
    • Sleeping and eating patterns changing
    • Crying or being angry or aggressive frequently
    • Having mood swings
    • Feeling ill
    • Becoming more withdrawn or developing stammering
    • Not talking about what's wrong
    • Changing route to school or not wanting to go

    Types and Examples of |Bullying behaviour

    Not all bullying behaviours are the same. They differ depending on the individual carrying out the bullying, and the person being bullied. It can also be affected by social and proximal situations. Different types of bullying behaviours exist:

    Type of BullyingExamples

    Physical bullying

    Includes beating, hitting, punching, kicking, pushing and/or pinching someone, tripping, stealing, damaging their possessions, etc., which can be long or short-term.

    Verbal bullying

    Includes insulting others, intimidating them, calling them names, teasing, swearing, verbal abuse, slurs (e.g. racist slurs), etc.

    Social bullying

    More subtle, often occurring behind someone's back. It can cause reputation damage or humiliation, e.g., lying about someone, spreading rumours, negative gestures, making faces, playing jokes to humiliate or embarrass, social exclusion, mimicking rudely, etc.


    Can be public or private, overt or covert, e.g., harmful content (texts, posts, pictures, emails or videos), exclusion of others online, harmful/negative rumours or gossip, imitating/pretending to be others through profiles, etc.

    Bullying behaviour, six hands on the outside of the image are pointing at the silhouette of a boy with his hands in the air in surrender, StudySmarterFig. 2: Bullying can be physical and verbal.

    Reasons for Bullying Behaviour

    There are several different perspectives in psychology that try to explain the reasons why people display bullying behaviour. Here we will explore biological explanations, individual differences and social aspects.

    Biological Explanations for Bullying Behaviours

    The biological explanations of bullying behaviour include genes and evolution. Genes are inherited, and evolution is an adaptive response that ensures better survival and reproduction chances. So, why would our genes be related to bullying behaviours? And how can evolution affect the development of bullying behaviours?

    Genetic Explanations for Bullying Behaviours

    Ball et al. (2007) found that genetic influences explain 73% of children's risk of being bullied, and 61% of genetic influences can explain the risk of children becoming the bully themselves. They investigated 1,116 twins aged 9–10, 12% of which had been severely bullied, 13% had bullied others a lot, and 2.5% had been victimised and also bullied others.

    We can see here that genes have an impact on bullying behaviours. They also found environmental factors explained 27% of children's risk of being a victim, and 39% described the risk of being a bully. This finding demonstrates genes seem to have a stronger influence on bullying behaviours in this situation than the environment. However, this does not mean the risk cannot be adequately addressed (through intervention etc.)

    Silva et al. (2013) found that in 387 students aged between 7 and 14 years old, both boys and girls are the victims and aggressors of bullying. However, each plays different roles in different types of bullying (e.g. in physical bullying/aggression, boys are victims more often).

    Concerning prevention, gender roles and how they are implemented in prevention strategies may aid the control of bullying behaviours.

    Other research has shown that certain genes influence bullying and aggressive behaviour.

    Swearer and Hymel (2015) found that 5-HTTLPR (which moderates stress and depression and is associated with serotonin levels) can affect the likelihood of being bullied or being a bully.

    Researchers have shown that victimised children with the short-short allele affecting the 5-HTTLPR gene are more likely to be depressed than those with the long-long allele and are at greater risk for emotional issues, both of which are risk factors for bullying.

    Therefore, genes are implicated in bullying (and aggressive) behaviour. It is important to remember these studies highlighted the importance of the environment and preventative factors, suggesting that genes make a person more vulnerable to these issues, rather than outright determining them.

    Evolutionary Explanations for Bullying Behaviours

    Due to paternity uncertainty, sexual jealousy is present at a higher level in males than females because of the risk of cuckoldry.

    Cuckoldry is raising someone else's child and, therefore, using resources on children who don't possess your genes.

    Therefore, showing sexual jealousy, e.g. in aggressive and bullying behaviours, is a mate-retentive strategy to reduce the risk of being cuckolded.

    Wilson and Daly (1996) proposed two main mate retentive strategies: negative inducements (e.g. threatening to commit suicide so his mate doesn't leave him) and direct guarding (e.g. controlling behaviours and knowing where his mate is all the time), which shows that evolutionary sexual jealousy is a potential reason for aggressive (bullying) behaviours.

    By testing 107 newlywed couples, Shackleford et al. (2005) found a positive correlation (both scores increased) between mate retentive strategies (by the husbands) and spouse violence reports (by the wives) and that it was a significant predictor of aggressive behaviour.

    Individual Differences in Explanations for Bullying Behaviour

    Individual differences explanations include cognitive biases and narcissistic personality issues. These factors affect the person and how they behave, explaining bullying behaviours from a personality perspective.

    Cognitive Biases Explanation for Bullying

    Cognitive biases are the misinterpretation of a situation based on the information you have at hand and have received from your environment. Issues arise when cognitive biases affect a person's ability to judge a situation appropriately, and thus they react inappropriately.

    Toblin, Schwart and Gorman (2005) found that impairments in self-regulation and difficulties in different domains of functioning were problems that were present in aggression/bullying victims.

    Also, aggression-related biases in social-cognitive processing were present in bullies, which shows cognitive biases affect bullying behaviours.

    Hostile attribution biases (a faulty information processing/cognitive bias) are also linked to the development of bullying behaviour since they are strongly correlated to aggression/criminality (Pornari et al. 2009). Only proactive, aggressive children with hostile biases would positively evaluate aggression, suggesting that cognitive biases influence/mediate bullying behaviours and aggression.

    Narcissistic Personality Explanation for Bullying

    A narcissistic personality often results in an inflated sense of self-worth and relative importance, directly affecting how power is perceived in situations, both when the narcissist acts like a victim and a bully. Narcissistic personalities tend to have issues with empathy and have higher needs for attention.

    Psychological research suggests that narcissistic personality traits have an indirect effect on the development of bullying behaviours.

    Linton et al. (2013) investigated 224 Canadian university students aged 18–47 and found a positive association between bullying and narcissism, psychoticism, aggression, and disinhibition.

    Social Psychological Explanations for Bullying Behaviour

    Social psychological explanations of bullying behaviours include cultural differences and moral disengagement theory.

    Cultural Differences in Explanation of Bullying

    Different cultures accept bullying behaviours differently. Greimel and Kodama (2011) found bullying behaviours are significantly more common in Austria than in Japan. While there are differences in rates of bullying, these statistics may be due to individuals being less likely to report bullying and social desirability bias (sticking to what is socially acceptable).

    These findings are suggested to reflect differences that apply to cyberbullying too. Bartlett et al. (2014) found higher rates of cyberbullying in the US than in Japan.

    Moral Disengagement Theory Explanation of Bullying

    Sometimes good people do certain things that only 'bad people' would do. It's a strange phenomenon and often occurs when the other person justifies their actions to themselves to explain away their behaviour.

    Bandura's (1999) social cognitive theory of moral agency explained why 'good people do bad things' by suggesting that bullying behaviours stem from defective self-regulation.

    The four main aspects of moral disengagement are:

    • Cognitive restructuring: justifying an act by pointing out that it could've been worse or making it seem less bad than it was.
    • Minimising agentive role: shifting responsibility away from themselves, e.g. by saying they were doing as another asked them to.
    • Disregarding the negative impact on the victim
    • Dehumanising the victim: blaming them for it happening

    Examples of Modifying Bullying Behaviour

    Research on bullying behaviour has helped us develop different ways of modifying this behaviour. These methods can improve the situation of bullying, decreasing the amount of bullying so that fewer people are harmed.

    The two main methods of modifying bullying behaviour are: The Olweus Bullying Prevention Programme (OBPP) and Creating A Peaceful School Learning Environment (CAPSLE).

    Olweus Bullying Prevention Programme (OBPP)

    The goal of the Olweus Bullying Prevention Programme is to prevent bullying and the development of new issues and improve peer relations in schools for students aged 5–15 years old. It would be made mandatory for all students to take part. Risk factors are addressed in this programme and so are protective factors.

    Risk factors include bullying others, anti-social behaviour and positive attitudes towards it.

    Protective factors include developing problem-solving skills and laying out clear behaviour standards.

    Bullying behaviour, young teenagers sit in a classroom looking at their teacher, StudySmarter.Fig. 3: Protective factors such as problem-solving skills can be taught to reduce bullying behaviour.

    Evaluation of OBPP

    OBPP is flexible because, since it's compulsory, students are all aware of the signs of bullying so bullies and victims can be identified more easily. Then they can be given more time and energy for their situations to be resolved.

    OBPP is effective since it has been reported to result in a 50% decrease in bullying incidents in schools, as well as reductions in antisocial behaviour and social climate improvements (Violence Prevention Works Scheme, 2016)

    However, Bauer et al. (2007) have suggested that individual differences play a big part in the results, e.g., race, family influences, and culture. This should be considered for future large-scale intervention plans.

    Creating A Peaceful School Learning Environment (CAPSLE)

    Two schools had their social demographic characteristics matched and had the CAPSLE programme applied to them by Twemlow et al. (2001), who monitored the results over four years and compared them to a control group.

    They found that discipline referrals significantly decreased and standardised academic achievement measures scores significantly increased, and the latter was positively correlated with longer time spent in the programme.

    Evaluation of CAPSLE

    This programme doesn't interfere with other educational processes in schools, increasing the likelihood of schools implementing it. In a review, the CAPSLE programme was found to improve students' academic performances significantly and was found to be flexible for each school's organisational and financial situation, also increasing the likelihood of schools implementing this programme as well as the fact that psychiatrists can be entered into it for school's that struggle with the organisational aspect of it.

    It is a cost-effective programme since the school already has the resources needed. Mainly, the staff's time will be required, which is a cost that will be balanced by the significant increase in grades and the financial advantage this provides.

    Bullying Behaviour - Key takeaways

    • Bullying is aggressive behaviour that harms an individual (through various means) by misusing power.
    • Different behavioural indicators of bullying can include severe changes in behaviour, low mood and anxiety.
    • Different types of bullying can include: physical, verbal, social, and cyber.
    • Reasons for bullying behaviour include biological explanations (genes and evolution), individual differences explanations (cognitive biases and narcissistic personality), and social-psychological explanations (cultural differences and moral disengagement theory).
    • The two main programmes used to modify bullying behaviour are the Olweus Bullying Prevention Programme (OBPP) and Creating A Peaceful School Learning Environment (CAPSLE), which are quite effective and useful to implement in schools.
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Bullying Behaviour

    What are the effects of relational bullying?

    Relational bullying can cause victims to have:

    • Depression

    • Anxiety

    • Low self-esteem

    • Sleeping and eating patterns changing
    • Crying or being angry or aggressive frequently
    • Having mood swings
    • Feeling ill
    • Becoming more withdrawn or developing stammering
    • Not talking about what's wrong
    • Changing route to school or not wanting to go

    Who does bullying behaviour affect?

    Bullying behaviours primarily affect the victim, but in severe cases, it can also affect the victim's family and friends (e.g. emotionally, by seeing their loved one getting hurt).

    How to change bullying behaviour?

    The main two ways of changing bullying behaviour are Creating A Peaceful School Learning Environment (CAPSLE) and Olweus Bullying Prevention Programme 

    What is bullying behaviour?

    Bullying behaviour is aggressive behaviour that harms an individual (through various means) by misusing power.

    What are some examples of bullying behaviour?

    Some types and examples of bullying behaviour are:

    • Physical Bullying 
    • Verbal bullying 
    • Social bullying
    • Cyberbullying

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which type of biases did (Pornari et al. 2009) find are linked to the development of bullying behaviour since its strongly correlated to aggression/criminality?

    Bullies pick on people who appear...

    What is the most common form of bullying?


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