Machiavellian kids? Bullies, empathy, and moral reasoning
© 2008 - 2013 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved
Many bullies are confident and socially successful.
Some may even be skilled at “theory of mind,” the ability to interpret the goals, beliefs, and emotions of others.
But being able to recognize the emotions of others is not the same as
Nor does good “mind-reading” imply that a person shows sympathy for others.
And here, perhaps, is where the average bully comes up short.
In a study of over 700 American children, Gianluca Gini and his
colleagues found that bullies, despite being quite competent at
reasoning about beliefs, outcomes, and the moral permissibility of
different actions, were "woefully deficient" in moral compassion
compared to victims and children who defend victims (Gini et al 2011).
And a study of Italian adolescents reports that boys who bullied
were more likely to receive low scores on a test of empathic reactivity
(Gini et al 2007).
Worth taking seriously?
I think so.
Studies suggest that some bullies are
more likely than other kids to develop antisocial personality disorder,
a psychiatric condition characterized by a disregard for the rights and feelings of others.
And not surprisingly, many bullies have distinctive attitudes about violence, cruelty, and human nature.
How bullies feel about bullying
In one study of Italian and Spanish children, researchers asked 4th
and 8th grade students to identify the bullies and victims in their
Next, researchers presented each child with a visual story—told with cartoons—about peer bullying (Menesini et al 2003).
The story included 10 different scenes of bullying. Each scene
portrayed an imbalance of power between bully and victim. All characters
were drawn with neutral expressions.
During the presentation, researchers asked kids to identify with the bully:
“If you were this boy or girl in the story” (pointing to the
bully), “would you feel (guilty, ashamed, indifferent, or proud)? Why
would you feel this way?”
Peer-nominated bullies were more likely to say they would feel pride or indifference.
Bullies were also more egocentric, explaining their emotional
responses in terms of the positive consequences for themselves (Menesini
et al 2003).
For example, bullies might justify their pride or indifference by saying
“I would feel great because I got the attention of other kids” or
“I wouldn’t feel guilty because it was a joke.”
How bullies avoid feelings of shame and guilt
Perhaps some bullies suffer from a neurological deficit—-a brain
malfunction that prevents them from feeling or caring about the pain of
others (Blair 2007).
But there are other possible explanations.
After all, bullies aren’t the only people who behave callously.
Ordinary, well-adjusted people are capable of harming others without
feeling remorse. It’s a matter of “turning off” or disengaging one’s
Moral disengagement is the process by which people convince themselves that bad behavior is morally acceptable (Bandura 1991).
Stanford psychologist Albert Bandura has argued that aggressors
may “turn off” their sense of guilt or shame by invoking one of several
mechanisms of moral disengagement, including
• Blaming or/and dehumanizing the victim
• Displacing or diffusing responsibility (e.g., “He made me do it”)
• Euphemistic labeling, (e.g., “Just a bit of fun”)
• Exonerative comparison (e.g., “What I did isn’t as bad as what others have done”)
Do bullies use such mechanisms? Ginaluca Gini tested this idea by
asking young adolescents how strongly they agreed or disagreed with
• “Some kids deserve to be treated like animals,” and
• “Kids cannot be blamed for misbehaving if their friends pressured them to do it”
Peer-identified bullies showed the highest levels of agreement.
They were joined by kids who regularly helped bullies (by catching or
holding the victim) and by kids who regularly laughed at victims.
The kids who were least likely to agree with the
statements were the defenders--kids whom other students identified as
regularly standing up for the victims of bullying (Gini 2006).
Is this a common pattern? It seems to be. Gini's results have
been replicated in Denmark (Oberman 2011), Switzerland (Perren et al
2012), and Italy (Pozzoli et al 2012).
Mechanisms of moral disengagement permit people to harm others without suffering the pangs of conscience.
But what sensibilities govern the conscience?
Educational psychologist Eleni Andreou presented Greek primary
school children with a series of questions about human nature and the
acceptability of manipulating people to get what you want.
Kids were asked how strongly they agreed or disagreed with statements about human nature, like
“Successful people are mostly honest and good,”
“Most people are good and kind,”
“It is possible to be good in every way,” and
“It is smart to be nice to important people even if you don’t really like them.”
Kids also rated their agreement with statements like
“Sometimes you have to hurt other people to get what you want”
“Sometimes you have to cheat a little to get what you want”
“A criminal is just like other people except he is stupid enough to get caught”
“It is better to be ordinary and honest than famous and dishonest”
The outcomes were interesting. Compared with kids who were not involved in bullying, bullies were more likely to endorse Machiavellian beliefs.
But there were differences among bullies.
--bullies who were not ever victimized themselves--agreed with
statements about the acceptability of manipulation and dishonesty. But
when it came to human nature, “pure” bullies were not significantly more
cynical than the uninvolved kids were.
By contrast, bullies who were sometimes bullied by others reported the greatest lack of faith in human nature and scored the highest on overall Machiavellianism.
Are bully/victims less moral than “pure” bullies?
The results of the Machiavellian study suggest that bullies who also
get victimized are distinctly more cynical than are other kids.
Other research is consistent with this view.
For instance, a study of American primary school students found
that bully/victims were much more likely than “pure” bullies to report
that they cheated in school (Glew et al 2005).
There is also abundant evidence that bully/victims are more
likely to suffer from psychological disorders, including antisocial
But does this mean that bully/victims are less moral? I’m not sure.
A Finnish study tracking boys from the age of 8 years found that
bully/victims were more likely to commit property crimes than were
“pure” bullies (Sourander et al 2007a).
But when it came to violent crimes, the “pure” bullies were the more frequent offenders (Sourander et al 2007b).
In fact, some researchers have speculated that the “pure” bully
more often fits the profile of the cold, callous, schemer (Sourander et
al 2007a). By contrast, bully/victims may tend to be the
“hot-heads”—impulsive people with poor emotional control.
So when I hear that bully/victims report more cheating in school,
or profess more agreement with Machiavellian beliefs, I wonder about
another explanation: Maybe “pure” bullies are more cautious about what
they confess to researchers!
What can we do?
It's hardly news that some bullies lack compassion, or rationalize
their cruelties. But researchers like Ginaluca Gini have contributed
something more to our understanding of bullying: Many kids are engaging
in moral disengagement -- telling themselves, for instance, that their
victims are subhuman -- long before they enter high school.
That may be disturbing, but it's not reason to give up. Research
suggests we can help children develop stronger empathy skills. Read more
about it in my article,
"Teaching empathy: Evidence-based tips for fostering empathy in children."
References: Bullies and moral reasoning
Andreou E. 2004. Bully/victim problems and their association with
Machiavellianism and self-efficacy in Greek primary school children.
British Journal of Educational Psychology 74: 297-309.
Bandura A. 1991. Social cognitive theory of moral thought and
action. In: WM Kurtines and GL Gerwirtz (eds), Handbook of moral
beahivor and development: Theory, research, and applications. Volume 1.
Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Blair RJR. The amygdale and ventromedial prefrontal cortex in
morality and psychopathy. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 11: 387-392.
Gini G, Pozzoli T, and Hauser M. 2011. Bullies have enhanced
moral competence to judge relative to victims, but lack moral
compassion. Personality and Individual Differences 50(5)603–608.
Gini G. 2006. Social cognition and moral cognition in bullying: What’s wrong? Aggressive Behavior 32:528-539.
Gini G, Albiero P, Benelli B, and Altoè G. 2007. Does empathy
predict adolescents' bullying and defending behavior? Aggressive
Behavior 33(5):467 – 476.
Menesini E, Sanchez V, Fonzi A, Ortega R, Costabile A, and Lo
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differences between victims, bullies, and outsiders. Aggressive Behavior
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late adolescence: the Finnish From a Boy to a Man study. Arch Pediatr
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Sourander A, Jensen P, Rönning JA, Niemelä S, Helenius H,
Sillanmäki L, Kumpulainen K, Piha J, Tamminen T, Moilanen I, and
Almqvist F. 2007b. What is the early adulthood outcome of boys who bully
or are bullied in childhood? The Finnish "From a Boy to a Man" study.
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