Most of us remember kids at school who seemed a little different – less sociable, more introverted and fragile, perhaps – and that they often seemed to be the ones to get picked on or rejected. Maybe you remember because you were one of those kids and you know what is was like to not fit in. Personality psychologists who study these things have partly backed this up: they’ve found that children and teens who score low in the “Big Five” traits of emotional stability, conscientiousness and agreeableness (similar to friendliness) are more likely to be bullied.
But of course being different is relative, it depends a lot on the crowd you’re in. A new study in the European Journal of Personality has looked into this, providing a more nuanced picture of how a teenager’s personality may place them at risk of being bullied. The results suggest that teenagers are more likely to be a victim of bullying if they have a personality that is unusual compared with what’s typical in their particular classroom. The researchers, led by Savannah Boele at Tilburg University, say their findings need to be extended and replicated, but they hope they could help teachers spot and support the kids in their class who are most likely to be bullied.
The data come from over a thousand pupils from six secondary schools in The Netherlands. Just under half were boys and the average age of the sample was 13.5 years. All the participants completed measures of their Big Five personality traits (extraversion, emotional instability, agreeableness, openness and conscientiousness) and their “Dark Triad” traits (psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism). The participants also stated who from their class had bullied them, if anyone, and who, if anyone, they had bullied. The kind of bullying – verbal or physical and so on – was not specified.
To measure classroom personality, the researchers identified the average rank order of the eight different personality traits across pupils for each class. For instance, the class might score highest on extraversion, on average, followed by agreeableness, then conscientiousness and so on. Each participant’s own personality profile, in terms of the rank order of their own traits, could then be compared with their class average.
The more different a participant’s personality profile was from their classroom’s average, the more likely they were to be named as victims of bullying by their peers (there was a trend for them to also be more likely to describe themselves as victims, but this didn’t reach statistical significance). The researchers said this result is in-line with “previous findings that youths who deviate from social norms are more likely to be rejected and perceived as low-status peers and hence at increased risk for being victimised by their peers”.
Boele’s team also looked at participants’ specific personality traits and how these related to the class average. Discrepancies here were mostly related to describing oneself as a bullying victim, rather than being named as a victim. Specifically, having higher or lower extraversion, agreeableness or openness to experience than the classroom average was correlated with describing oneself as a victim of bullying. So too was having higher than average emotional instability or Machiavellianism, and lower than average psychopathy. In terms of being named as a victim, having higher than average emotional instability was a correlate, as was having higher or lower Machiavellianism.
The findings are preliminary and there are some obvious gaps – actual acts of bullying were not recorded, but depended on participants’ own sense of victimisation or admissions of bullying others. This means, for example, that having a different level of extraversion than what’s typical for the class might be related to extra sensitivity towards potential slights, rather than to overt acts of bullying (given that scoring differently from the class average on extraversion, and some other traits, was related to self-identifying as a victim, but not being named as a victim). Another thing: how a teenager’s personality is perceived by their peers is also likely to be highly relevant but wasn’t measured in this study, which relied entirely on participants’ descriptions of their own personalities. Finally, remember the data are correlational, so it’s possible being bullied affects teens’ personalities, rather than, or as well as, their personalities affecting their risk of being bullied.
So more research needed, but this paper makes an important contribution to the literature, being the first study to provide evidence that having a personality that’s different from the classroom average can be a risk factor for being bullied.