Understanding pure bullies:

Aggressors who are socially-savvy, popular, and smart

© 2008 - 2013 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

Pure bullies are a distinctive group

In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry Potter learns a terrible truth: His late father had been a school bully.

How disturbing. After all, Harry Potter’s father hadn’t been a social oaf—a slow-witted outsider who couldn’t think of anything better to do. James Potter had been an admired upper classman, a star athlete, a “cool” guy. He had no excuse for being a bully.

But is that really unusual? Maybe not.

We sometimes hear that bullies harass other people because they are emotionally insecure or socially incompetent. They resort to harassment and intimidation because they can’t think of any better way of getting attention.

The reality is more complicated than that.

Two kinds of bully

Yes, there are bullies who feel like social misfits. There are bullies who feel depressed, anxious, or lonely.

But these bullies usually belong to a special category--bullies who are also the victims of other bullies.

By contrast, there are the “pure” bullies. These are the people who always occupy the dominant role. They don’t get victimized by other bullies. They are at the top of the food chain. And they seem to reap the benefits of their position.

A new understanding of the pure bully

Research has debunked several misconceptions about bullies.

Bullies aren’t necessarily high-strung, insecure, socially clueless, or academically inept.

Nor is bullying only about physical aggression.

Physically aggressive bullying—also called direct bullying--may include hitting, kicking, or taking a victim’s personal belongings.

But there is also relational bullying, which involves more subtle forms of harassment: social snubs, name-calling, and the spreading of malicious rumors.

As researchers have taken a closer look at bullying, a new picture has emerged.

Some pure bullies may be skilled social strategists--cool, confident manipulators who use harassment to enhance their social status.

Support for this hypothesis? Check out these points.

Pure bullies don’t seem to suffer from low self-esteem

In a study of American 6th graders, researchers interviewed kids to determine who the bullies, bully/victims, and victims were. Then they asked each child a series of personal questions (Juvonen et al 2003).

Compared to other children, pure bullies were more likely to agree with such statements as “I do most things right.” They were least likely to agree with statements like “I worry about what others think.” They were also the least likely to agree with statements that indicated loneliness or social anxiety (e.g., “I have nobody to talk to” and “I worry about what others will think of me”).

For bully-victims, the results were different. They showed more psychological distress then did kids who were uninvolved in bullying.

But pure bullies seemed to be the least anxious, least depressed, and least lonely of all kids—including those kids who were wholly uninvolved in bullying.

Other research supports the idea of the confident bully. Studies conducted in Finland, Ireland, and the United States have all found that kids who bullied were more likely to have positive self-concepts (Kaukianien et al 2002; Collins and Bell 1996; Pollastri et al 2010).

In fact, kids with high self-esteem may tend to be more aggressive than other children. In one study, researchers asked hundreds of American kids (from the 3rd, 4th, and 4th grades) to rate the aggressiveness of their peers (David and Kistner 2000). Kids also reported on how they felt about themselves.

The kids with highly positive self-images were more likely to be named as aggressive by their peers. The results remained significant after controlling for gender and ethnicity, and even moderately positive self-perceptions were linked with higher levels of aggression.

Granted, these studies relied on what kids said they felt about themselves. Maybe pure bullies are simply more reluctant to admit their insecurities.

But when researchers presented kids with a personality questionnaire designed to detect lies, pure bullies showed less evidence of lying than did kids who were uninvolved in bullying (Mynard and Joseph 1997).

Other evidence suggests that pure bullies are relatively cool-headed.

Pure bullies aren’t “wired” or “high-strung”

A study of young British adolescents examined their levels or arousal—the degree to which they were excited or stressed by stimuli in the environment. Researchers found that bully/victims had higher levels of arousal than all other kids—including passive victims (Woods and White 2005).

But the arousal levels of pure bullies were much lower, similar to those of neutral kids (who were neither bullies nor victims). Maintaining lower states of arousal may help pure bullies control their emotions, making them more effective schemers (Woods and White 2005).

Pure bullies aren't social oafs

Experiments on British kids have shown that bullies actually outperformed their peers on social cognition tasks. In particular, these kids—aged 7 to 10 years—did a better job of identifying the mental states and emotions of the main character in a story (Sutton et al 1999).

A more recent, Italian study has replicated some of these results.

In this study, psychologist Gianluca Gini asked primary school children to identify who among them were bullies and who were victims. In addition, Gini asked students to identify peers who

• Help the bully

• Laugh at people getting bullied

• Stick up for the victim

• Isn’t usually there when someone gets bullied

Then Gini presented each student with social cognition tasks—a series of short stories that students were required to interpret.

The stories portrayed characters with thoughts, beliefs, goals, and emotions—including moral emotions, like guilt.

Gini found that the kids identified as bullies performed as well as did other children. Moreover, the kids who were rated as the biggest bullies actually performed better than average (Gini 2006b).

Pure bullies aren’t necessarily struggling in school

Some studies have reported that bullies are more likely to exhibit poor “school adjustment” (e.g., Nansel et al 2004). But these studies didn’t include any objective measurements of academic achievement.

What happens when we look how bullies perform on standardized academic tests?

British researchers examined over a thousand young school children (aged 6 to 9) and could find no link between being a bully and performing poorly on standardized academic tests (Woods and Wolke 2004).

In fact, the results suggested that some bullies may be better-than-average students. Kids who were “relational” bullies—the bullies who engage in mostly “psychological warfare,” like spreading malicious gossip and excluding victims from social groups—had average or better-than-average academic scores.

Other studies suggest that low achievement is linked with bully/victims, not pure bullies.

For instance, a study of Finnish 5th grade students found that students with poor literacy skills were somewhat more likely to be bullies than were other students (Kaukiainen et al 2002). But researchers suspect that bully/victims—not pure bullies—were more likely to have learning difficulties.

And a study of over 3500 American kids (enrolled in grades 3 through 6), found that bullies were more likely to be low achievers (Glew et al 2005). But this was true only for bully/victims—not pure bullies (Glew et al 2005).

Pure bullies have high social status

Bullies seem pretty confident and socially-adept. Where does this lead? Apparently, to higher social status.

A study of Swiss children (aged 5 to 7) found that bullies had more leadership skills than did children who were not involved in bullying (Perren and Alsaker 2006). Moreover, the bullies belonged to larger social clusters.

The trend continues among older kids.

In an Irish study, researchers assigned bullies high scores for sociability and leadership (Collins and Bell 1996).

And in the study of American 6th graders mentioned above, students rated the school bullies as the “coolest” kids in school (Juvoven et al 2003). This was true for both types of bully. However, the effect was much larger for pure bullies. Pure bullies were also perceived by teachers to be the most popular students.

But high status doesn’t necessarily mean that people like you. When asked which kids they preferred to spend time with, students tended to name peers who were wholly uninvolved in bullying.

A recent study of Dutch kids found the same thing: Bullies were perceived as more popular, but kids didn't really like bullies (Sijtsema et al 2008).

So what's the problem?

If pure bullies aren’t suffering from deficits in social reasoning, self-esteem, self-control, or social status….then just what is missing?

Empathy and moral engagement: The missing pieces?

New research points to old-fashioned answer. Bullies may simply have trouble with moral reasoning.

One study found that bullies scored low on a test of empathic reactivity (Gini 2006b). Other studies (Obermann 2011; Perren et al 2012; Pozzoli et al 2012) report that bullies are more likely to

• justify their behavior in terms of the consequences for themselves

• rely on rationalizations that make anti-social behavior seem acceptable

• endorse Machiavellian beliefs

For the full story, check out this article on Machiavellian bullies.

Does this imply that bullies are sociopaths?

Not necessarily. But kids who bully others on a daily basis are at a greater risk of developing anti-social traits, particularly if they also exhibit other behavioral problems.

For this reason, it makes sense to screen frequent bullies for psychiatric symptoms, and provide help to those who screen positive.

What else can we do?

Quite a bit, I think.

In addition to screening kids for potential psychiatric problems, we can offer bullies help in the areas that matter.

This might mean

• addressing the way bullies reason about moral issues

• reviewing—and improving—the way bullies communicate with other members of their families

• emphasizing authoritative (as opposed to authoritarian) discipline

It might also mean changing the way bullies interpret the intentions of others. Research shows that aggressive kids are more likely to perceive hostility in neutral social situations, so it makes sense to teach these kids how to re-interpret the intentions of other people (Hudley and Graham 1993).

But, most of all, it means taking clear stand against bullying.

When bystanders do nothing, it sends the message that bullying is okay. When bystanders—even peer bystanders—intervene, bullies tend to stop.

For more information, see this fully-referenced article on the prevention of bullying. And check out these tested strategies for reducing the rates of bullying in school.



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References: Understanding pure bullies

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Content last modified 9/2013