Category: bullying

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.”
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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.’
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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.
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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.”
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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.

Bullying still too narrowly defined by some teachers

A minority of teachers may still have an overly-narrow conception of what constitutes bullying, according to Paul Naylor and colleagues. They asked 225 teachers and 1,820 pupils (aged between 11 and 14) from 51 schools to write down what ‘they think bullying is’. Despite the fact the participating schools all had high-profile anti-bullying policies, 33 per cent of pupils and 10 per cent of teachers restricted their definition to direct physical or verbal abuse, failing to mention issues surrounding social exclusion, power imbalance, the bully’s intention to cause hurt, or whether the bullying was repetitive.

“The finding that even in the schools involved in this study where anti-bullying policies and practices are so high profile there are still many teachers who are working with very limited conceptions of bullying is cause for concern” the researchers said. “It may be that researchers have so far not been very successful in communicating their ideas about bullying to teachers”.

Girl pupils were twice as likely as boys to mention social exclusion in their definitions of bullying. Older pupils too tended to have a more sophisticated conceptualisation of what bullying is. Overall though, the pupils tended to give narrower definitions of bullying than teachers, and they were particularly less likely to mention the effect of bullying on the victim, all of which led the researchers to conclude that many children may not realise they are being bullied. “Adults who work with child targets of bullying should listen not only to the child’s allegations of the bully’s behaviour, but also to the effects that it has on him or her” the researchers said.
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Naylor, P., Cowie, H., Cossin, F., de Bettencourt, R. & Lemme, F. (2006). Teachers’ and pupils’ definitions of bullying. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 76, 553-576.

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