Category: bullying

Having a personality that’s different from average may increase teens’ risk of being bullied

lonely school pupil sittingBy Christian Jarrett

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.

Continue reading “Having a personality that’s different from average may increase teens’ risk of being bullied”

Resist or avoid? Sad study suggests bullying victims are on their own either way

Office workers gossiping behind a worker who looks downcastBy Alex Fradera

Workplace bullying can corrode organisations and wreck individual lives. Research has revealed more and more about effects on victims and the motives of the perpetrators. But bullying is often a performance that demands an audience: you can’t ostracise someone from an empty room, or gossip about them to the wind. So it’s worth looking at the third ingredient in the bullying mix: the bystander. New research in the Journal of Social Psychology takes on this task, looking at the factors that dispose a bystander against bullying victims, and what might encourage them to step in and help.

Continue reading “Resist or avoid? Sad study suggests bullying victims are on their own either way”

New power in the hands of the chronically powerless can be toxic

Toxic Chemical

In the 1970s, feminist theorists began to put forward what was then a controversial claim: that sexual aggression is essentially about power. This idea was important enough to launch experimental research, much of which has supported the claim – for instance, priming some men with a sense of power leads them to say they would be more prepared to coerce sex, and encourages men and women alike to believe a subordinate desired them sexually. However other research has suggested the opposite: that aggression is more likely when perpetrators feel less powerful, including in domestic violence and specifically sexual aggression contexts.

To make sense of these seemingly contradictory findings, researchers from Emory and Stanford universities have looked at power more carefully. Their work, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, suggests that a person’s experience of power in the past and their power right now in the current situation are distinct factors, and how they combine is key. Continue reading “New power in the hands of the chronically powerless can be toxic”

“Just try to ignore it”: How neurotic people respond to extreme rudeness at work

We’ve all experienced rudeness at work; at the time it’s offensive and can harm our creativity, but it bears even darker fruits in the long-term, as repeated exposure is associated with depression, anxiety and psychological distress.

How do people deal with rudeness? When is it buried away, and when addressed? A new study suggests that we actually tend to ignore it most of the time. However more offensive acts may set us off – unless we are particularly emotionally sensitive, in which case, the greater the rudeness, the more likely we are to bury our heads in the sand.

Maquarie University’s Larissa Beattie and Barbara Griffin asked 92 customer service and admin employees at a security company to keep a diary of their experiences and responses to workplace incivility, on eight days spread over four weeks.

People of all personality types mostly (80 per cent of the time) just ignored instances of mild rudeness at work. But when rudeness was more serious, personality made a difference. In these situations, emotionally stable people became more likely to respond in some way (either by retaliating, seeking support or even forgiving the perpetrator), whereas high scorers in neuroticism were even more likely to keep their head down and ignore the incident.

The reasons for this difference aren’t clear from the research. This isn’t about neurotic people being scared to react to bullying from authority figures, as the status of the aggressor was not related to this effect. However, people with high trait neuroticism tend to avoid highly arousing negative situations in general, so it makes sense that they should want to avoid confrontations at work.

In this study, each individual showed a wide repertoire of responses to incivility – sometimes ignoring, sometimes reacting in kind, and in some instances taking it out on others. Context clearly matters, with temperament leaning us in different directions. Unfortunately, the study doesn’t give us an understanding of which responses lead to better outcomes; ignoring may be a healthy reaction in many cases, but we also know that sometimes outbursts of anger are needed to draw attention to workplace injustices. It’s in this context that the reaction of people with high trait neuroticism is concerning, as these more serious events may be precisely the ones that call for a reaction.

Also bear in mind the study looked at a range of roles, but only from a single organisation; it would be useful to explore this issue elsewhere to see how it generalises outside of a certain corporate culture. Given the impact that negative interactions have on job satisfaction and turnover, it’s important that we understand the reasons why some people suffer in silence.


Beattie, L., & Griffin, B. (2014). Accounting for within-person differences in how people respond to daily incivility at work Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 87 (3), 625-644 DOI: 10.1111/joop.12067

–further reading–
The harm caused by witnessing rudeness
Self-doubt turns bosses into bullies
A misogynistic workplace is bad for male employees too

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

When the going gets tough, supervisors pick on their weaker staff

A crisis changes everything. Friends are gone, and survivors must adapt to a new, dangerous environment. In the aftermath, predators circle to exploit the weak and vulnerable. According to new research, this not only describes the red tooth and claw of nature, it also applies to the workplace. Pedro Neves at the New University of Lisbon provides evidence that following an organisational downsize, employees are more likely to receive abuse from their supervisors.

Neves was guided by displaced aggression theory – the idea that workplace abuse is often a form of “kicking the dog” – venting our frustrations not at their source, rather at those whom we have power over. Neves predicted that this leads supervisors to target those most unable or unwilling to retaliate: submissive individuals characterised by low “core self-evaluation”(CSE; a combination of personal traits relating to self-image including self-esteem and belief in one’s own abilities), and/or those with fewer co-worker allies.

Survey data from 12 large and medium-sized Portugese organisations from a range of industries – financial to construction to healthcare – confirmed that individuals with lower CSE or less co-worker support were at the receiving end of more abuse, based on their self-ratings of items such as “my supervisor blames me to save himself/herself embarrassment” or “tells me my thoughts or feelings are stupid”. Four of the organisations had gone through downsizing in the prior two years, and in these, submissive employees were even more likely to be picked on. A post-downsizing environment involves uncertainty, ruptures to social networks, and a higher sense of individual risk – all of which heightens vulnerabilities and gives confidence to aggressors that their abuse is unlikely to be fought against.

The data also showed that submissive individuals performed more poorly and engaged in fewer organisational citizenship behaviours, which Neves argues is evidence of the employees also “kicking the dog” – in this case channeling their resentment of the supervisor into minor acts to undermine the organisation.

As this was a cross-sectional survey we have to be careful about drawing such causal inferences, but further analysis suggested two obvious alternative explanations were unlikely: that submissive traits were the consequence of supervisor criticism; or that abuse was causing both poor performance and the submissive traits.

Neves advises facilitating co-worker support as a bulwark against exploitation of the vulnerable, and to build the CSE of employees. These are good things to encourage in any case – but ultimately, the responsibility for change lies not with the abused, but the abusers, to cease picking on the weak.

  ResearchBlogging.orgNeves, P. (2014). Taking it out on survivors: Submissive employees, downsizing, and abusive supervision. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology DOI: 10.1111/joop.12061

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

What children think of people who wear glasses

Removing his spectacles was part of Clark Kent’s metamorphosis from geeky journalist into superhero. With popular symbolism like that, perhaps it’s no wonder that Francine Jellesma has found many children endorse negative stereotypes about people who wear glasses.

Jellesma conducted a literature review finding 28 relevant studies on this subject published since 1980. Although the results showed glasses were far less salient to children than other identifying features, such as gender, their views on glass-wearers were largely negative. For example, asked to compare pairs of children, one of whom was always wearing glasses, 5- to 9-year-olds consistently rated the child without glasses as prettier and better looking. Another study found that children were less interested in being friends with glass-wearing peers.

The one positive caveat was that many children associate the wearing of glasses with superior intelligence. For example, asked to draw a smart person or a scientist, children tend to depict their creations as wearing glasses (but they don’t do so when asked to draw a stupid, nice or nasty person). Jellesma said this association was probably aided by the prevalence of intelligent, glass-wearing fictional characters like Harry Potter and John in Peter Pan.

What about children’s views of their own glass-wearing? Here the findings from four relevant studies were more encouraging. Studies that have tracked the general self-concept of children over time have found little effect of their changing to wearing contact lenses, suggesting glass wearing isn’t that important to the way they see themselves. It’s only when attention has been focused specifically on self-perceptions of physical appearance that changing to contacts has made a difference, with contacts boosting appearance-related self-esteem. Also relevant are studies looking at children’s willingness to wear glasses. Younger children don’t’ seem too bothered, but there’s evidence of older children refusing to wear glasses, especially in urban areas. Jellesma said this could be due to fears of bullying in larger schools with more hostile social environments.

Jellesma concluded that more positive, glass-wearing media role models could help improve the self-esteem of glass-wearing children, and improve the stereotypes that children hold about people who wear glasses.


F.C. Jellesma (2012). Do glasses change children’s perceptions? Effects of eyeglasses on peer- and self-perception. European Journal of Developmental Psychology DOI: 10.1080/17405629.2012.700199

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest and the author of a forthcoming book on personality change

Not in my gang: Children’s and teenagers’ reasons for excluding others

It’s a fact of life that when kids form friendship groups some would-be members get left out. A lot of psychology research has focused on what it’s like to be rejected. But now a new study has taken a more unusual approach, asking children and adolescents to recall times that they left someone out, and to explain their reasons for doing so. Holly Recchia and her team hope the findings could help design better interventions for reducing social exclusion.

Eighty-four children were interviewed: 28 7-year-olds, 28 11-year-olds and 28 17-year-olds. A clear difference emerged with age. The younger children rarely described themselves as having any choice when they’d excluded others. They mostly mentioned practical reasons – “We were playing piggy-back wars … another kid wanted to play … we didn’t have any more people for him,” or peer pressure – “We were playing jump roping and somebody else wanted to play with us, but then my friend said no.” Their pleas of innocence contradict behavioural observations showing that young children often leave other kids out deliberately. The 17-year-olds, by contrast, were more up front, most often giving the reason that they disliked the excluded person – “We didn’t invite this one girl because she’s not open-minded … ,” was a typical comment.

Based on the finding with the younger kids, Recchia and her team said that social inclusion programmes for youngsters may benefit from encouraging them to take ownership over their actions, “given their apparent reluctance or incapacity to do so spontaneously.”

On a positive note, when asked to evaluate their reasons for excluding others, even the younger participants showed evidence that they were conscious of the ramifications (for example, the rejected person might not want to be friends with them in the future). It was also clear that the participants sometimes deliberately avoided thinking too much about what they’d done – a strategy that the researchers said “was aimed at numbing their awareness of the emotional consequences of leaving others out.” Consistent with this, some of the participants mentioned feeling guilty when they gave in to peer pressure and took part in the exclusion of others.

Even among the 17-year-olds, who mostly treated disliking another person as a valid reason for excluding them, there was evidence that they were aware of the “undesirability” of exclusion. Recchia’s team said this was “heartening” and could provide “an initial entree for interventions aimed at helping widely disliked victims of exclusion become reintegrated.”

This is the first study to investigate the subjective experience of excluding others across a wide age range of children and teens. The researchers said a “one-size-fits-all” model fails to capture the complexity of their results. “We argue that research on social exclusion could benefit from a fuller recognition of this variability and complexity in young people’s subjective construals of their own experiences,” they concluded, “thus setting the stage for programmes that may help young people to more critically and deliberately weigh their multiple and varying goals and concerns.”

HE Recchia, BA Brehl, and C Wainryb (2012). Children’s and adolescents’ reasons for socially excluding others. Cognitive Development, 195-203 DOI: 10.1016/j.cogdev.2012.02.005

Previously on the DigestChildren’s reasoning about when it’s okay to reject their peers.
The pain of rejection.
We’re better at spotting fake smiles when we’re feeling rejected.
Realistic view of their popularity protects children against effects of social rejection.

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

Witnessing school bullying carries its own psychological risks

We hear a lot about the harmful consequences to children of seeing their parents argue or watching violence on TV, but very little about the potential harm of witnessing school bullying. But now Ian Rivers and colleagues have published findings suggesting that being a bystander to bullying can often be just as psychologically harmful as being directly involved.

The researchers asked just over 2000, predominantly white, children aged 12-16 at 14 state schools in the north of England about how much they’d been bullied, been a bully or witnessed bullying, over the last school term. Bullying appeared to be part of the daily lives of most of the children, with 63 per cent saying they’d seen bullying going on; 20 per cent admitting that they’d bullied someone else and 34 per cent reporting they’d been bullied.

The pupils were also asked questions about their mental health and their use of cigarettes, alcohol and other drugs. The findings showed that being a witness to bullying was associated with increased mental health problems and substance abuse, above and beyond the effects of being directly involved in bullying. In other words, witnessing bullying was still significantly associated with psychological measures like anxiety and depression, even after the potential influence of being a bullying victim or perpetrator was factored out. Pupils who’d witnessed bullying (but not been a victim or bully) also tended to report drinking more alcohol than victims or those not at all involved in bullying.

The researchers acknowledged that their study was not longitudinal so it only offered a snapshot of the relations between the various bullying roles and mental health measures. And there’s also a need to treat pupils’ self-report data with caution. Nonetheless, Rivers’ team said their study suggests school psychologists should consider the effects of bullying on bystanders, not just on those directly involved.

Possible reasons why witnessing bullying could be psychologically harmful include being reminded of one’s own past experiences of being bullied; being made to feel that one is at risk of being bullied; and also feeling guilty for not intervening to help the victim.

‘It’s well documented that children and adolescents who are exposed to violence within their families or outside of school are at a greater risk for mental health problems …’ said Rivers. ‘It should not be a surprise that violence at school will pose the same kind of risk.’

ResearchBlogging.orgRivers, I., Poteat, V., Noret, N., & Ashurst, N. (2009). Observing bullying at school: The mental health implications of witness status. School Psychology Quarterly, 24 (4), 211-223 DOI: 10.1037/a0018164

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Young girls particularly prone to getting stuck in role of bullying victim

Young girls are far more prone than boys to getting stuck in the role of bullying victim. That’s according to a new investigation by psychologists who studied hundreds of children at 17 primary schools in Hertfordshire and North London.

Dieter Wolke and his colleagues interviewed the children when they were aged between six and nine years and then surveyed them again two or four years later once the children had reached year six. The researchers were interested in the individual and situational factors predictive of whether a child would remain or become a bulling victim.

Of the 663 children who initially took part, 432 were available at the follow-up session. Among the girls, the 44 who were victims of so-called “direct bullying” (physical and verbal abuse) at baseline, were two and a half times more likely than their classmates to also be a victim of direct bullying at follow up. By contrast, boys who were victims of direct bullying at baseline were no more likely than their classmates to be a victim at follow up. In other words, young girls seem particularly prone to getting stuck in the victim role. The researchers said that girls’ “tightly knit” friendship networks could make it difficult for them to “escape the victimisation role”. Unsurprisingly perhaps, boys and girls with fewer friends were also at greater risk of direct bullying.

Wolke’s team also looked at so-called “relational bullying”, when children deliberately outcast a class mate. Although rates of relational bullying had increased by the follow up session (probably reflecting the children’s growing skills of manipulation), neither boys nor girls who were victims of this kind of bullying at baseline were more likely than their peers to still be a victim at follow up. The researchers said this could be because friendship groups are still in flux at primary school, thus making it possible to escape earlier social exclusion. However, caution is needed here because the children who dropped out of the study, mostly because they had changed schools, were disproportionately likely to have been the victim of relational bullying at baseline, so it’s possible their absence skewed the results. Overall, children with emotional problems and children in classes with rigid social hierarchies were at greater risk of relational bullying.

Whilst cautioning that their reliance on children’s self-report was a weakness of the study, Wolke’s team said their findings had important implications for teachers and other professionals. “These findings call for the development and implementation of intervention programmes that tackle victimisation at an early age in primary school,” they said.

ResearchBlogging.orgWolke, D., Woods, S., & Samara, M. (2009). Who escapes or remains a victim of bullying in primary school? British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 27 (4), 835-851 DOI: 10.1348/026151008X383003

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Self-doubt turns bosses into bullies

Power corrupts, or so they say. But it doesn’t corrupt everyone. Not all bosses are bullies. What is it about some people in power that leads them to turn nasty? The psychologists Nathanael Fast and Serena Chen have performed four new studies testing one possible answer and the popular and scientific press have fallen over each other to report on the findings.

New Scientist wrote on Twitter: “It’s official: Your bullying boss really is an idiot”. But the truth of the research is more nuanced. Fast and Chen actually showed that it is self-perceived incompetence, not actual incompetence, that can provoke a person in power to abuse their authority.

The basis for the new research was the idea that people who are in a position of power, but who believe they are incompetent, are likely to feel threatened. Cornered managers, like trapped animals, lash out.

The logic may be sound, but the evidence presented is preliminary. Fast and Chen spent no time undercover in high-octane office environments waiting to interview managers post temper tantrum.

However, in an initial survey of ninety participants, they did find particularly high rates of self-reported aggression in workers who claimed to be in positions of power and who also described themselves as chronic worriers of what other people thought of them.

A second study with 98 participants further showed that those who were primed to think about a time they’d been in a position of power, and to think about a time they’d felt incompetent, then went on to choose a particularly loud noise for students to be blasted by when answering incorrectly in a hypothetical quiz.

Importantly, these first two studies showed power was only linked to increased aggression when paired with feelings, prompted or otherwise, of incompetence. Next, Fast and Chen tested a possible aggression cure hinted at by these initial findings.

The researchers placed 59 students in a position of power over another imaginary student, who they were told would be performing intelligence tests for prizes. This time, consistent with the earlier findings, the student participants who perceived themselves as lacking in influence, and who were also given fake, “average” feedback on a leadership questionnaire, subsequently showed increased aggression – that is, they were particularly likely to choose an extra difficult intelligence test for the imaginary student. But crucially, this tendency toward raised aggression among the self-declared low influence students was eradicated if they were given excellent feedback on that fixed leadership questionnaire. A little ego massage can help calm the bullying boss.

A final, toying study that drove participants’ minds one way and then the other, showed a similar pattern. Participants in real-life positions of power, who wrote about a time they’d been incompetent, subsequently described themselves as highly aggressive, but not if they’d also completed a self-affirming writing task about a value of personal importance to them (thus restoring their threatened ego to safety).

“Power holders who do not feel personally competent are more likely than those who feel competent to lash out against other people,” Fast and Chen concluded. “Additionally, the finding that self-worth boosts assuage the aggressive tendencies of such power holders implies the effectiveness of a strategy commonly employed by underlings: excessive flattery.”

Fast NJ, & Chen S (2009). When the Boss Feels Inadequate: Power, Incompetence, and Aggression. Psychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society / APS PMID: 19818043

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.