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 empathy. 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 classes.

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 compass.

Moral disengagement

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 statements like

  • “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).

Machiavellian kids?

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.

“Pure” 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 personality disorder.

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."

Copyright © 2006-2021 by Gwen Dewar, Ph.D.; all rights reserved.
For educational purposes only. If you suspect you have a medical problem, please see a physician.

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 Feudo G. 2003. Moral emotions and bully: A cross-national comparison of differences between victims, bullies, and outsiders. Aggressive Behavior 29:515-530.

Obermann ML. 2011. Moral disengagement in self-reported and peer-nominated school bullying. Aggress Behav. 37(2):133-44.

Perren S, Gutzwiller-Helfenfinger E, Malti T, and Hymel S. 2012. Moral reasoning and emotion attributions of adolescent bullies, victims, and bully-victims. Br J Dev Psychol. 30(Pt 4):511-30.

Pozzoli T, Gini G, and Vieno A. 2012. Individual and class moral disengagement in bullying among elementary school children. Aggress Behav. 38(5):378-88.

Sourander A, Jensen P, Rönning JA, Elonheimo H, Niemelä S, Helenius H, Kumpulainen K, Piha J, Tamminen T, Moilanen I, and Almqvist F. 2007a. Childhood bullies and victims and their risk of criminality in late adolescence: the Finnish From a Boy to a Man study. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 161(6):546-52.

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. Pediatrics. 120(2):397-404.

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