The Motivation to Bully Relates to One’s Social Standing in a Group

There is increasing agreement among researchers and policymakers that interventions against bullying should be targeted at the peer group level rather than at individual bullies and victims. It has been suggested that bullying behavior is partly motivated by a pursuit of high status and a powerful position in the peer group (1, 2).

  • Because status can only exist within a group, and it is the group that assign status to its members, the group is in the key role in regulating bullying behaviour among its members. The relevant group can be the classroom as a whole, but bullies might also want to be accepted and admired by their own, antisocial friends rather than classmates at large (3, 4).
  • Bullies choose victims who are submissive (5), insecure of themselves (6), physically weak and in a low-power, or in a rejected position in the group (7). By dominating victims like this, bullies can repeatedly demonstrate their power to the rest of the group and thus renew their high-status position without the fear of being confronted.

The Peer Group Often Reinforces Bullying Behavior

Demonstrations of power need witnesses. Not surprisingly, a group of peers is present in most bullying situations (8). Although it is possible that bullying incidents attract spectators, it is highly likely that the attacks are often initiated when a group of peers is already at the spot. Research shows that:

  • Bystanders seldom intervene (9).
  • Children may have different participant roles in bullying situations: victims, bullies, assistants of bullies, reinforcers of bullies, outsiders, and defenders of the victim (10).
    • Bystanders often reinforce the bully’s behavior by laughing or cheering.
    • Others might just silently witness what is happening, and the bully might interpret such behavior as approval of what he or she is doing.

Thus, even if most children’s attitudes are against bullying (11), it seems that the presence and behavior of peers is more likely to maintain the resumption of bullying instead of finishing it.

Classroom-level Factors Influence the Occurrence of Bullying

Classrooms clearly vary in their levels of bullying and victimization. Also, the associations between individual risk factors (such as anxiety) and victimization varies across classrooms (12). This means that two important factors affect the likelihood of bullying and victimization:

  • The personal characteristics of the child
  • The characteristics of the classroom (s)he happens to belong to.

Reasons for Targeting the Group as a Whole

Children and adolescents facing bullying problems as bystanders are trapped in a social dilemma.

  • On one hand, they understand that bullying is wrong and they would like to do something to stop it – on the other hand, they strive to secure their own status and safety in the peer group.
  • However, if fewer children took on the role of reinforcer when witnessing bullying, and if the group refused to assign high status for those who bully, an important reward for bullying others would be lost. If the peers are part of the problem, they can also be part of the solution.

Combat Bullying by Influencing Bystanders

Bystanders might be easier to influence than the active, initiative-taking bullies. The bystanders often think that bullying is wrong, they feel bad for the victim, and they would like to do something to help. Converting their already existing attitudes into behavior is a challenging task, but it might nevertheless be a more realistic goal than influencing an individual bully by adult sanctions or rewards only.

Even if the change in bystanders’ behavior would not lead (at least immediately) to changes in the bully’s behavior, it is very likely to make a difference in the victim’s situation. Mobilizing the peer group to support the victim is crucial in minimizing the adverse effects for those who are victimized.

  • Victimization is an attack on the victim’s status but also on his or her need to belong (13), and often a successful one.
  • Having protective friendships at the classroom has been shown to buffer against further victimization as well as the negative influences of victimization (14, 15).

Raising children’s awareness of the role they play in the bullying process, as well as raising their empathic understanding of the victim’s plight, can reduce bullying. Additionally, students should be provided with safe strategies to support the victim. When the reward structure of the classroom changes, supporting and defending the victim can actually become reinforced and rewarded.

Targeting the bystanders does not mean that individual bullies should not be influenced. Both universal and indicated interventions are needed to effectively put an end to bullying. When bullying comes to the attention, the particular case should be handled, not together in the classroom but by private, firm discussions in which it is made clear that bullying is not tolerated.

In Finland, we have developed a national anti-bullying program, KiVa, funded by the Ministry of Education, based on the principles above(16). It is currently being piloted in more than 100 schools all over Finland and the first results seem really promising. Even good theory-guided principles are not enough, if adults at school and at the home front lack effective tools for their anti-bullying work.

Christina Salmivalli is a professor of psychology at the University of Turku, Finland, and a professor-II in the University of Stavanger, Norway. She is currently leading, together with Elisa Poskiparta, PhD, the development and evaluation of a national anti-bullying program (KiVa) in Finland.


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  17. Caravita, S., DiBlasio, P., & Salmivalli, C. (in press). Unique and interactive effects of empathy and social status on involvement in bullying. Social Development.
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