Definitions/Characteristics of Bullying

— State: Kansas State Department of Education
Updated on May 1, 2014

Exploring the Nature and Prevention of Bullying

Bullying incidents tend to involve three different groups of students: Bullies, Victims, and Bystanders. While the young people within each of these groups share many similarities, each group can be further divided into subgroups of students with different personalities, motivations, and behaviors. It is important to understand the nature and range of the young people who fall into each of these three groups in order to effectively plan and deliver bullying prevention activities.


In a 1978 study, Olweus described three different types of bully: the aggressive bully, the passive bully, and the bully-victim. These characterizations still hold true today.

  • Aggressive bullies are the most common type of bully. Young people who fall into this category tend to be physically strong, impulsive, hot-tempered, belligerent, fearless, coercive, confident, and lacking in empathy for their victims. They have an aggressive personality and are motivated by power and the desire to dominate others. They are also likely to make negative attributions, often seeing slights or hostility in those around them where neither actually exists. According to Olweus, the aggressive bully tends to be most popular in the early school years and then less so in the upper grades — perhaps because young children are more likely than older students to admire the macho image. As students get older, they become better able to think critically about peers and "leaders."

    Surprisingly Skilled

    In contrast to the popular notion that bullies lack social skills, research has shown that bullies are actually quite adept at reading social cues and perspective-taking. Rather than using these skills prosocially, such as to empathize with others, they instead use them to identify and prey on peer vulnerabilities.

    "All data point in the same direction … that bullies have no problem with self-esteem."

    – Dan Olweus, 2002 OSDFS National Technical Assistance Meeting

  • Passive bullies, unlike the ultra-confident aggressive bullies, tend to be insecure. They are also much less popular than the aggressive bullies and often have low-self esteem, few likable qualities, and unhappy home lives. Passive bullies also appear to have difficulties concentrating and focusing their attention at school, as well as violent outbursts or temper tantrums that lead to problems with their peers. Rather than initiating a bullying interaction, passive bullies tend to hang back until one is already under way — usually at the instigation of an aggressive bully. Once a bullying incident begins, passive bullies become enthusiastic participants. In fact, passive bullies are very quick to align themselves with and display intense loyalty to the more powerful aggressive bullies. Some researchers refer to this group as anxious bullies.
  • Bully-victims represent a small percentage of bullies who have been seriously bullied themselves. Bully-victims are often physically weaker than those who bully them but are almost always physically stronger than their own victims. They possess some of the same characteristics as provocative victims (described below); they are easily aroused and sometimes provoke others who are clearly weaker than they are. Bully-victims are generally unpopular with their peers, and they are more likely than other types of bullies to be both anxious and depressed.
  • Dieter Wolke, of the University of Hertfordshire, England, identified a fourth group of bullies: pure bullies. "It appears that pure bullies are healthy individuals, who enjoy school and use bullying to obtain dominance," says Wolke, who labels these children "cool operators." Pure bullies have not been victimized themselves, and they are rarely absent from school — presumably because they enjoy victimizing their peers.
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