by Cameron Thomas, Kenyon ’17
We all have an idea of what the classic bully looks like. A bigger kid, ripped pants, leather jacket, slicked-back hair, sometimes a toothpick in his mouth, and always a smug look on his face. We also have a stereotypical idea of what a victim looks like. A frail kid, shirt tucked in, suspenders, usually has glasses, comb-over haircut, and always looks terrified to turn each corner. Well this isn’t the 80s anymore, so we now understand that bullying comes in many different forms and the same applies for bullies and victims. It is more important to focus on the typical personality traits associated with being a bully or victim, rather than concentrating on what he or she may look like.
Effrosyni Mitsopoulou and Theodoros Giovazolias led a literature review and meta-analysis of many pieces of research related to this topic in the last 30 years, in order to more thoroughly understand the personalities of bullies and victims. There are many varying definitions of what bullying is considered, but they combined many of these definitions and found a common link between all of them. They described bullying as “a repeated behavior (including both verbal and physical behaviors) that occurs over time in a relationship characterized by an imbalance of strength and power (Mitsopoulou).” For personality, they used the Big Five Factor model, which breaks down the dimensions of personality into Openness to experience, Conscientiousness (thoroughly careful), Extraversion (high energy and assertive), Agreeableness (friendliness), and Neuroticism (emotional instability).
Past research has also tested personality as it relates to bullying, but not using the Big Five Factor model. Instead, they found that bullies score higher on psychoticism, which is solitary, impulsive behavior, hostility toward others, and lack of cooperation and sensitivity in social situations (Slee & Rigby, 1993). Another study found that bullies are more likely to score higher in Machiavellianism, which is where the person sees others as a platform for manipulation in order to gain social success (Sutton & Keogh, 2000). A final past study with important results demonstrated that bullies exhibit little empathy and hostile behavior, which could reflect low scores in Agreeableness and Conscientiousness. Victims exhibit introversion and low social acceptance, which could reflect low Extraversion and high Neuroticism (Tani, Greenman, Schneider, & Fregoso, 2003). The results of these studies along with many more have a few contradicting points, such as bullies being solitary versus extraverted, but they also have a lot of evidence that support each other.
Mitsopoulou and Giovazolias’ work sets the record straight on this topic. Their meta-analysis allowed them to determine that lower levels of Agreeableness and Conscientiousness, along with higher levels of Extraversion and Neuroticism were related to both bullies and victims! That’s right, bullies and their victims share similar levels of personality traits, and there is a reasonable explanation (for most of this). Bullies are often involved in high-energy-peer activities, such as a sports, that require hardly any sensitivity or cooperation with their peers. This idea goes perfectly with the higher levels of Extraversion and lower levels of Agreeableness. Also, bullies tend to be assertive and have little to no fear of consequences, adding to the idea of high Extraversion as well as high Neuroticism. For victims, it is reasonable to assume that a child who displays overall angry emotions could be bullied, or it could be that a child who is being bullied would be more likely to express angry emotions. This would be evident in their high levels of Neuroticism. The low levels of conscientiousness, combined with high Neuroticism, may play a role in a victim’s inability to regulate their behavior in a conflict situation, creating anxiety and stress that could make the situation worse.
This study also looked at age and gender as being possible moderators for this relationship. Age was a significant moderator for neuroticism, such that bullies in younger school grades who are high in Neuroticism (high anxiety and insecurity) may express more aggressive behaviors. Gender was a significant moderator for extraversion, such that boys scored higher than girls, which could be because boys are more likely to join in on bullying.
The results of this study help us to understand the personality traits that go along with bullying, thus helping schools and work places to be more capable of solving these issues. As a freshman in high school, I used to think that seniors would bully me and shove me in lockers just because they didn’t like the new kid, but clearly there is a lot more going on in this complex topic.
Mitsopoulou, E., & Giovazolias, T. (2015). Personality traits, empathy and bullying behavior: A meta-analytic approach. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 21, 61-72.
Slee, P.T., & Rigby, K. (1993). The relationship of Eysenck’s personality factors and selfesteem to bully–victim behaviour in Australian schoolboys. Personality and Individual Differences, 14, 371–373.
Sutton, J., & Keogh, E. (2000). Social competition in school: Relationships with bullying, Machiavellianism, and personality. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 70, 443–456.
Tani, F., Greenman, P.S., Schneider, B.H., & Fregoso, M. (2003). Bullying and the Big Five. A study of childhood personality and participant roles in bullying incidents. School Psychology International, 24, 131–146.