You may have heard before that, though bullies are physically superior, that they are intellectually simple. However, the idea that bullies are “socially blind” has very little empirical evidence.
If you consider the nature and social context of bullying, it is conceivable that bullies process social information accurately and that they use this skill to their advantage (Sutton, 1999). Social information processing methods used by children and how they comprehend situational cues, and use their past experiences can influence their aggressive conduct (Gini, 2006). With this in mind, I think it is also important to add that bullies and their aggressive behavior had been associated with a hostile attribution bias, meaning a tendency to attribute with a hostile intent to others in ambiguous social situations. This also goes the opposite way as in, victims of bullying are more likely to feel victimized in ambiguous social situations (Pouwels, 2016). So, why are bullies so hostile, despite possibly having strength in picking up social cues?It is important to note that bullies fall into a different category than conduct disordered child in terms of theory of mind. This is because repetitive bullying behavior suggests planning and involves theory of mind. This can be illustrated through the fact that, indirect forms of aggression such as social ostracism often involves manipulation of mental states and beliefs of others in the form of gossip, rumors, and lies (Sutton, 1999). Girls have been more likely to participate in indirect or relational forms of aggression and accordingly, there is a theory of mind superiority in girls (Sutton, 1999).
So, what makes bullies so cold? Bullies may be better understood by studying other aspects of their lives such as family life. Families of children who bully are often characterized by the lack of cohesion and an imbalance of power between parents. Therefore, this type of relationship internalized in children may be providing a model for cold, manipulative way of thinking. This may also explain how the heightened awareness of feelings of others but also the unwillingness or inability to share those feelings, would make bullies manipulative in his or her way of dealing with others (Sutton, 1999).
The difference between bullies and non-bullies may also lie in their values. Aggressive children attach more values to the rewarding outcomes of aggression and less values to negative outcomes than non-bullies (Sutton,1999). This idea is further added on by Gianluca Gini in his paper. He showed that though bullies may be excelling in social cognition tasks, they showed deficits in appreciating the emotional consequences of their behavior on others, to share and empathize with the feelings of others. They also showed moral disengagement as they are at a higher level to disengage in self sanction and justify the use of aggressive behaviors (Gini, 2006).
Bullies usually use techniques to justify their behavior, for example moral justification, advantageous comparison, displacement and diffusion of responsibility, and minimizing or misconstruing consequences (Gini, 2006). The difference between prosocial and aggressive individuals is also illustrated through Possoli’s paper. Recognition of negative facial emotion helped aggressive youth identify victims and made their aggressive behavior more successful.
At the same time, it promoted prosocial behaviors and alerted bystanders something is wrong and supported empathetic response towards the victim/victims. This also showed that unlike social cue sensitivity, emotional recognition as a neutral ability that is not necessarily an operating factor in moral and prosocial behavior. Understanding bullies may help avoid the fostering of the growth of such behaviors and attitudes. Sutton made a good point, he said “if some bullies are indeed skilled in “psychological warfare”, it may be necessary to change the battleground as well as the weapons used.” He believed that schools that values competitiveness maybe unknowingly encouraging bullying.
A warm and participative school environment may be part of the solution to bullying in school settings.