the psychology of bullying

The Psychology of Bullying

July 31, 2017 243 18 No Comments


The Psychology of Bullying

Preventing bullying in high school has cost the USA over $1.4 million per person. That’s a staggering amount considering the number of those who have been bullied. 
One of three children has reported that they have experienced bullying at some point in their lives. Among students aged 9 to 12 years old, 11% were identified as having bullying tendencies, 10% were classified as victims, and 6% showed an indication of having been a victim and slowly, over time, becoming a bully.



The psychology of Bullying is a pattern of aggressive behavior that occurs repeatedly with the intention to do harm to others and can be physical or nonphysical. It’s only been in recent years that bullying has been considered an actual significant risk factor amongst youth, and that it is not simply just a ‘right of passage.’

Psychology of Bullying and the Victim

Bullying should not be looked as a two-way relationship between the bully and the victim. Instead, bullying should be considered a group phenomenon that also includes bystanders, condoners, and defenders. The bullying-victimization dynamic are incidences of complex interaction between the individuals involved and the contexts and environments that they are surrounded by (i.e. family, peers, culture, etc.). Putting it into this context, it’s more plausible to see that bullying occurs in a “social context in which various factors serve to promote, maintain or suppress such behavior.”

Hierarchy is a fluid and dynamic function of society, and this is all the more so for children whose involvement in social interactions can change with the slightest of provocation. One moment they can be victims and the next, they can turn out to be bully themselves. Take for example, a highly contemptuous sibling rivalry. The older sibling might come home and be an absolute jerk to the younger sibling, harassing him the moment the older sibling steps through the door. And yet, at school, the older sibling is subjected to complete and utter torment by the resident bully. Is the older sibling a bully or a victim? The answer is obviously both. But when people think of bullying, they think a person is solely either a victim or a bully.

Who Becomes a Bully? how does someone become a bully

You’ve probably heard that bullies are those who lack prosocial behaviors with narcissistic tendencies, and who get off on the high of having power over weaker, smaller peers due to their own low self-esteem. Well, unfortunately, as much as we want to believe that bullies are unpopular, feared and scorned by their peers, research has shown that bullies can be the most popular kid with the highest level of self-esteem you’ve ever seen.

The stereotype behind the psychology of bullying having psychopathic tendencies and low social skills who bully others so as to make themselves look better is just that–a stereotype. When looking on the social scale of those who are bullies, these perpetrators are perceived to be leaders, socially-skilled and attractive.

What Causes the Bullying/Victimization Dynamic?

 What came first? The chicken or the egg? You’ve probably heard this one a bunch of times, but this dilemma of either the chicken coming first or the egg coming first very much applies to the causal relationships of bullying and victimization. As previously established, those who are bullies are often diagnosed with conduct disorder whereas those who are the bullied are often shy, vulnerable and withdrawn. These correlations have been highly supported over the years, so their integrity is not in question. What is in question is whether or not one causes the other. Note: the key word is “causes.”

Individual Differences Between Bullies

Is it that those who have been diagnosed with conduct disorder become bullies because of their disorder? Or is it that those who are bullies continue to bully because they are rewarded for their behavior and as such they end up meeting the diagnostic criteria for conduct disorder?

Is it that those who are shy and withdrawn become victims of bullying because their weak status draws more appeal and attention from bullies? Or is it that those who are bully victims become shy, withdrawn and develop anxiety problems due to the bullying?

How Family can Influence becoming a bully

When it comes to individual differences, research has not been able to come up with a concrete reason as to why some people become bullies and why some people are more prone to victimization.

However, there has been plentiful research when it comes to family influences on bullying and bullies and how that can affect the psychology of bullying. Children who come from dysfunctional families are more likely to be the perpetrators of bullying. These family characteristics may include neglect, domestic violence, authoritarian parenting, abuse, etc. Therefore the argument has been that “aggressive modeling and poor parental supervision contribute to bullying,” although like most psychological research, causality is not established to the point where we can say without doubt that dysfunctional families are the cause of bullying.

Peer and School Influences

Besides the bully-bullied dynamic, there is also another role that plays a very important influence. 85-88% of bullying incidents are observed by bystanders, and unfortunately for what we would like to think, bystanders are more likely to respond in ways that actually encourage the bullying rather than dissuade. 21% of the time, bystanders actually joined in on the bullying, and only 1/4th of the time intervened. The rest stood by and passively watched the ongoings, which encourages the bullying as the lack of intervention is interpreted as condoning bullying.

If all these peers are standing by and watching this happen in front of their eyes, not doing anything to help, where are the teachers? Bullying incidents occur at a much more frequent rate in schools that have little to no teacher-student interaction or negative interaction, and if the school environment is negative in general, students are less likely to report incidences of bullying believing that their words will go ignored or even make things worse. Once again, though, which came first? Did the negative school environment caused the bullying, or did the bullying cause for the school environment to become negative?

Is it the egg? Or is it the chicken?

Psychological Effects of Bullying, for Both Sides

Victims of bullying often end up with:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Low self-esteem
  • Suicidal tendencies
  • Self mutilation
  • Delinquencies
  • Poor academic performance
  • Substance abuse 
  • Somatization (the manifestation of multiple recurrent medical symptoms which have no discernible physical cause)

Victims start to internalize their problems as well as the negative rumors and words about them. And to make things worse, those who have been bullied for a long period of time tend to show more negative consequences that last longer compared to those who have been bullied for shorter periods of time.

Bullying has also been found to affect a bullied victim’s stress hormones, increasing their sensitivity. And not only that, there are suggestions that their prefrontal cortex is affected by the heightened sensitivity to stress, which are the areas that are basically in control of emotional regulation and emotional memories. And like one big cycle, the impact on emotional memories causes for each incident of bullying to have an enduring effect which causes more stress, and on and on the cycle goes.

On the other side, bullies often show some similar symptoms to their victims:

  • Psychosomatization (a physical illness that is due to a negative psychological state or problem)
  • Anxiety
  • Depression

Now here’s where everything gets a little more interesting. When we talk about bullies, we usually lump all bullies into one category. But that was then, and this is now. Recent research has shown that there is a difference in consequences for those who are both the bully and the bullied–the bully-victim.

Those who were originally victims who then turned to bullies themselves were more likely to experience:

  • Depression
  • Psychosomatic symptoms
  • Poor academic performance
  • Poor social skills
  • Negative self-perception

The bully-victim scored the most negative scores on psychological health, physical health and academic performance compared to the traditional bully or traditional victim. They have the emotional problems that occur to those who are solely victims of bullying, and the behavioral ineptitudes of those who are solely bullies. Talk about not having the best of both worlds.

Fighting Back Against Bullying

“Tell a teacher.” “Toughen up, it’s a good way to build character.” “Ignore it, they’re just jealous of you.” These are all common phrases that pop up when someone brings up that they are being bullied. Well, we can all probably agree that it’s much easier said than done.

The long term effects of bullying are harsh which only makes the fact that you’ve been bullied in the first place worse. Experiencing bullying already takes a toll, but having the consequences last long past the bully has gone away? Now that’s just brutal.

But this doesn’t mean that you should just shrug your shoulders, give up and roll up in your bed. Responding to bullies may be a daunting task and you’re probably thinking, “So many things can go wrong!” Hlongowever, to ignore the problem is to make the problem last longer, and the longer bullying occurs, the more likely you’ll end up with long-term consequences to your physical and mental well-being. Put an end to all forms of bullying and end the vicious cycle of abuse and violence. Educate yourself about the effects of bullying, stand up for others who are bullied, and voice out your concerns and objections to bullying.


If you enjoyed this article, please consider sharing it with someone who you feel can also benefit. 

Liked it? Take a second to support Austin Armstrong on Patreon!