Bullying appears to be ubiquitous. We find it in every society that we look for it. Even amongst societies that explicitly state a strong dislike of violence and anger, we find subtle indirect bullying. Our goal is to understand it so that we can prevent it (or at least reduce it).
Bullying is goal-direct aggression that causes harm within the context of a power imbalance. Bullying happens in a wide range of settings, contexts, groups, and ages. And bullying most definitely can cause serious harm to victims. Yet the popular stereotype of bullies as being lonely social-misfits also doesn’t appear to be true for many bullies who are socially skilled, and suffer from few, if any, mental or physical health problems. Add to this that bullies tend to be rated as dominant or popular and that they begin dating earlier and more often. Finally, bullying is partly heritable and has many animal analogues.
We therefore believe that bullying is a natural part of our evolutionary history. That doesn’t mean we condone it. Craving fat, salt, and sugar are part of our evolutionary history, but we don’t have to chow on junk food all day. Similarly, we don’t accept bullying as a modern or moral behavior, so we want to change this undesirable part of human nature. An evolved behavior means that there is a predisposition for some people, under some circumstances, to behave in bullying because that sort of behavior was sometimes adaptive in our evolutionary past. But much like our preference for sugar, this doesn’t make it morally good or unchangeable. It just means we have to be aware of this predisposition when we discuss bullying and anti-bullying strategies. Which we are currently doing in Meaningful Roles, an anti-bullying intervention that aims at addressing “what’s in it for the bully?” as a way of reducing bullying, and thus victimization. We try to capitalize on predispositions to guide individuals to more civil, prosocial alternatives to bullying.
We believe that adolescents’ personalities play a key role in predicting whether or not they engage in bullying. Particularly, we feel that personality traits that are related to low Honesty-Humility (HEXACO) and psychopathy (callousness, lack of humility) may put adolescents at risk for being bullies. Conversely, being introverted and neurotic may place adolescents at the risk of being bullied. But parents, peers, and social environments also all contribute to bullying by helping to shape the costs and benefits of behaving like a bully. So we really want to study the intersection of personality, relationships, and the environment/culture.
Make no mistake, bullying is very complex problem. But the good news is that we’re getting better at understanding it. Our goal is to help with those efforts in order to improve the lives of the millions of people (especially children and adolescents) worldwide who are affected by it.
Bullying in Adolescence
We are currently looking at 3 separate aspects of bullying amongst adolescents: sports, parents, and/or social development.
Our preliminary data suggests that adolescent girls who are in competitive sports face significantly greater risks of being a bully AND/OR being bullied! We are currently replicating the results of this study, as well as expanding it to include boys and adolescents outside of competitive sports. Given that sports are supposed to be a positive, safe, and character-building activity for youth, our findings are of great concern. Thanks to the participation of hundreds of youth from local sport and extracurricular clubs, we are finding out more about the links between sports and bullying. We have not yet fully analyzed our results, but it appears from preliminary findings that fathers play a particularly important role in sports bullying, serving as both models as well as emotional supporters.
We also have some very encouraging data that coaches may be able to play an important role in reducing athletes’ bullying behaviors in sports AND in schools! In other words, coaches who condemn bullying may change the behavior of their athletes so that they are less likely to bully other adolescents not only in sports, but also at school. There may also be changes in victimization rates associated with coaches’ attitudes towards bullying.
Addiotional details can be found on my media page, where there are links to bullying and exercise as well as to Brock’s Basketball team’s annual anti-bullying event.
We believe that parents can play a crucial role in preventing bullying and in helping victims of bullying. However, to do so, we need to understand that different children had different temperaments- different, internal ways of approaching the world. Some children respond well to empathy, others reward, others to challenges. We do know that parents can play a role in preventing bullying if their child has a predisposition to be a bully. In those cases, parents need to know what their child is up to. That means actually knowing, not just asking or setting limits. If parents can establish an honest dialogue with their adolescent, that greatly reduces the chances of the child behaving as a bully.
As said above, we think that bullying is a combination of individual predispositions AND their environment. That means various environments can help or hinder the expression of bullying. For example, we know that competitive environments, environments with poor adult supervision, and dangerous neighborhoods all increase the chances of bullying happening. We believe that these environments send signals to some children that their best option is to exploit others. Thus, by changing these environments, we can change the degree of bullying. The problem is, bullying is a really hard behavior to change, and some environmental factors, like who is dominant and popular, are equally hard to change.
The first thing we need to prevent bullying is to understand it. That’s why my lab does basic research on what bullying is, how do we definite it, and how do we measure it. We also look at how we can not only punish bullies, but offer them incentives for stopping their behavior. After all, if bullying results in popularity, sex, and resources, it’s going to be a tough sell to tell bullies to stop just because we said so. Instead, we think a combination of the stick AND the carrot might just be what’s helpful. To this end, we have co-developed the Meaningful Roles intervention and are currently setting up ways to evaluate it.
Given that bullying is a global problem, our lab tries to study bullying outside of the Southern Ontario, Canadian samples we tend to get. To begin with, we have studied bullying and aggression amongst the adolescents of Bwa Mawego. Bwa Mawego is an isolated rural village on the Caribbean island of Dominica (not to be confused with the Dominican Republic). This village makes for an ideal location to study bullying for several reasons. First, there is no research on bullying and Dominica, and as such, there is no evidence that can be used to help the local children who suffer from bullying. Second, local adolescents go to school in another village, meaning that school life and village life can be quite separate. This means that bullying in school and in the village can be quite separate. Lastly, despite speaking English (and a local French patois), the culture on the island is quite different from mainstream North American culture.
We have also started collecting data from Chinese adolescents in Baoding. We have found that Chinese bullies share many characteristics with Canadian adolescents. But there seem to be fewer bullies and they display slightly more exaggerated personality traits. We are currently analyzing Chinese peer-reported social networks to see if that collectivist adolescent data is similar to what we see in Western countries.
Finally, we have done some research on bullying amongst First Nations youth. Our Six Nations bullying is part of my research in Six Nations youth in general. I am one of four faculty members at Brock University who are part of the Six Nations Student Success Consortium. The consortium is led by aboriginal members of the Six Nations, with the faculty members serving an advisory role in order to help address local issues involving students. Ultimately, we work for First Nations students and their goals, instead of asking them to work for us and our goals. We are interested in better understanding the forms and functions of bullying on and off the reserve for Six Nations youth.