What is the anatomy of a bully?
Bullies aren’t mass produced on an assembly line. They can be rich or poor, male or female, physically large or petite, smart or not so smart. There’s no prototype. However, mental health disorders, parental influences, excessively low or high self-esteem and cultural influences can contribute to the personality of a bully.
Oddly, little research has been devoted to what makes bullies tick until recently. Researchers have focused on how their behaviours affect their victims. Now that national attention has turned to high-profile cases, researchers frequently ask what causes bullies to bully and what is the anatomy of a bully?
Bullies and mental health, the layers within the Anatomy of a Bully
Children with mental health disorders are three times more likely to be identified as bullies, according to a study released to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) in October, 2012 and reported by Science Daily. Researchers reviewed a sample of 10 to 17 year-olds from an earlier study that revealed emotional, developmental and behavioural disorders are among the causes of bullying.
That same data, collected five years prior, also revealed that children who felt their parents were often angry with them, failed to help them with homework or showed no interest in their children’s friends were at risk as well. And, many children reported they learned bullying from their parents.
Children with these influences are known to target people who appear confident and well-adjusted because they lack social skills and impulse control. They resort to bullying to compensate for their inadequacies or deep feelings of helplessness.
Bullies lack social know-how
Children who are most at risk of bullying and being bullied are those who lack problem solving skills and perform poorly academically. Researchers from the University of California at Riverside found that both bullies and their victims share those two characteristics. They tend to come from negative family and school environments and think negatively about themselves because they lack social and academic skills. The July 2010 study was published by the American Psychological Association and reported by Science Daily.
Their findings may arm professionals with the tools they need to help at-risk children who resort to intimidating and aggressive behaviours to navigate a confusing world. However, these factors affect some bullies, but they by no means explain all the reasons bullies bully.
Do all bullies really have low self esteem?
For years, psychologists thought so and some still do. Yet, in his 2001 Scientific American article titled, “Violent Pride,” author Roy F. Baumeister found that violent gang members considered themselves superior to their weaker targets.
Many bullying behaviours bear that out, particularly in the workplace. Researchers report that office bullying originates with the company’s president or high level management.
Like puppet masters, they set up a system of public humiliation, punishment and isolation to control their employees, and make examples of those who step out of line. Employees on lower rungs of the hierarchy enforce those same bullying techniques within their departments. Victims of that kind of abuse often report rises in blood pressure, depression and blows to their self-esteem.
In such cases, people with power enjoy the perks of social privilege. They can get away with it because they have no one to answer to unless they cross the line into physical assault. Theirs is hardly a low self-esteem problem.
Bullies like power
A U.S. government websitestopbullying.gov, defines it as “actions such as making threats, spreading rumours, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose.”
Bullies tip the balance of power to their advantage through physical size or strength, social popularity and access to information that could shame their victims. They do it in several ways:
- Verbal Bullying includes teasing, name-calling, “calling someone out,” taunting, inappropriate sexual remarks and threats.
- Social Bullying is intended to ruin another’s reputation or relationships by swaying others to socially isolate and alienate them, spreading rumours about them, and publicly humiliate them.
- Physical Bullying includes hitting, kicking, tripping, spiting, pushing, bumping, making threatening gestures, and taking or breaking someone’s things.
- Financial Bullying involves using power to threaten someone’s livelihood by threatening to fire them without cause, sabotage, refusal to help them do their job, unnecessarily nitpicking their performance, verbal abuse, sexual harassment, public tantrum throwing and humiliation.
The green-eyed bully
One way to comfort a bully’s victim is tell them their tormentor is just jealous of them. That’s not too far from the truth.
Researchers at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands discovered in 2010 that most school-age bullies want two things: status and affection. After questioning hundreds of children, ages 9 to 12, they learned that most bullies use some form of dominance to gain status among their peers. They’re willing to use intimidation to shut down their competition: another student who could claim the social throne. In addition, young bullies don’t want to lose their classmates’ affections and, therefore, victimize vulnerable classmates to earn them.
Cyber bullying: cloak and dagger assault
It’s different than “traditional” bullying during which a victim often meets their perpetrator face-to-face. Rather, electronic communications, such as tweeting and texting, can reach a huge audience while allowing the bully to stay cloaked in anonymity. Cyber bullies don’t feel like they’re bullying. Yet, the mental effect can be devastating to a teen that can’t defend her or himself against it.
Recently, researchers found that, behind the electronic mask, cyber-bullies are as likely to suffer mental health disorders as traditional, in-your-face bullies. Science Daily reports that researchers from the Turku University in Finland surveyed more than 2,000 adolescents between 13 and 16. Those who admitted they electronically bullied others reported problems with emotions, concentration, behavior, hyperactivity, headaches, feeling unsafe and tobacco and alcohol abuse.
More than half of Americans believe incivility in our society is on the rise and expected to worsen in coming years, according to Weber Shandwick’s 2011 annual survey on incivility. The climate of unbridled rudeness is evident in politics, pop culture, music, media, big business, work, schools, and now, the internet – just about all aspects of our culture. And incivility breeds bullies. Among those surveyed, 65% believed overall incivility worsened with the recent financial crisis and recession.
But, the seeds of incivility were sown in American history since before the Salem Witch Trials. American bullying is a breed unto itself, posits Roddey Reid, a professor at University of Southern California, San Diego. In his essay, Bullying in U.S. Public Culture: Or, Gothic Terror in the Full Light of Day, he writes:
“Yet, there’s a virulence and prevalence of bullying in the U.S. virtually unmatched anywhere else in terms of its reach, depth and legitimacy. Foreign observers note this and commonly refer to it as the American culture of bullying.”
Reid argues bullying remains unchecked, unregulated and under researched in this country whereas Europe and Canada have social structures in place that discourage, if not, prevent it. The reason: Americans like bullies. We watch it on reality TV, we applaud it on daytime talk shows and we practice it at home, school and work. Now, with mounting news reports of teen and child suicides provoked by merciless cyber bullies, we’re just now paying attention.
The national call to return to civility
It takes an Italian to tell Americans how to act. At least, Dr. Pier Forni, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, is giving it a good college try.
He co-founded the Johns Hopkins Civility Project in 1997 to assess “the significance of civility, manners and politeness in contemporary society.” The project has morphed into the Civility Initiative with Forni as director and advocate for a national return to civility. He’s written two books on the subject, Choosing Civility and The Civility Solution in which he argues that returning to the rules of etiquette can diffuse hostility in the atmosphere.
Moreover, incivility and bullying in the workplace, schools and public places –such as roads – cost in damages and loss. For example, bullied employees suffer depression, elevated blood pressure and are susceptible to illness. So, they’re less productive, which causes profit loss.
Forni is among those calling for a cultural self-inventory before Americans get blind-sided from within. It seems etiquette may be an effective prescription to prevent bullying. It’s a hard sell to modern generations who see manners as a set of restrictive, old fashioned rules. But, sometimes the old way is the best way.