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2 kinds of bullying, 2 kinds of empathy: Research

Digital mindfulness poster

A digital mindfulness poster (photo, by Thomas Galvez, CC licensed)

It’s an age-old social problem, but we have gotten so much smarter about bullying – both the problem and solutions – since media became so very social. Not only do we now know that the age-old “schoolyard bully” is a stereotype, we know it’s not the only one people all over the world entertain. But there’s something else we now know that muddies the solution side a bit and calls for alertness and thoughtful responses: There are two kinds of empathy. One can significantly support bullying alleviation; the other is actually used in bullying. Here’s what I mean:

The stereotypes

When we hear the word “bully,” two stereotypes actually come to people’s minds now:

  • The age-old one of the tough kid who takes pleasure, seeks attention, feels powerful or all the above in roughing (or beating) up another kid
  • The more recent stereotype made famous by the film Mean Girls, which is much more about psychological and social power – the kind of anti-social behavior expressed online as well as at school (but by no means just by girls – see “Cyberbullying by Gender” here).

The latter are often seen as the “popular kids” – not necessarily well-liked or trusted, but other kids often look up to them (because of the power, attention or admiration they attain). These kids have skills that help them maintain their social status, so their behavior is very different from that of the “classic bully,” according to last year’s milestone multidisciplinary study from the U.S.’s National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. So let’s zoom in on “high-status” and “low-status” bullying….

‘Low-status bullying’

The “classic bullying” stereotype “casts children and youth who bully others” as being “high on psychopathology, low on social skills, and possessing few assets and competencies that the peer group values,” according to the National Academies report. Obviously these are not “the popular kids”; they even annoy or provoke adults when seen in action. The consensus definition of bullying includes a “power differential” and, since classic “bullies” show their power by hurting peers physically, this kind of bullying happens in person, in physical spaces like school, not always out in the open but usually with witnesses. And it’s usually pretty obvious who the bully is.

‘High-status bullying’

The high-status kind of bullying, on the other hand, is not always obvious to adults, especially if “perceived by peers as being popular, socially skilled, and leaders,” as the National Academies researchers describe them. That’s how adults tend to see them too. Because they have “been found to rank high on assets and competencies that the peer group values such as being attractive or being good athletes,” adults sometimes overlook social aggression when they engage in it – or look the other way. High status aggressors can avoid discipline or manipulate situations so that their peers are disciplined instead of them. [Of course, not all popular students are high status aggressors; some, probably most, are genuine leaders, or at least kind to their peers.

Other research has put “high status” and “low status” bullying into a “social rivalry” vs. “social cruelty” dichotomy. A study of nearly 4,000 students in grades 8-10 in three North Carolina counties found that most teenage aggression is directed at social rivals: a peer “maybe one rung ahead of you or right beneath you, rather than the kid who is completely unprotected and isolated,” as the study’s author, Dr. Robert Faris, put it. “The students near the top of the social hierarchy are often both perpetrators and victims,” and those at the very top among the students engaged in this social drama (the “top 2%”) are “less likely to be aggressive.” Again, these are not the “classic bullies” taking the trauma in their personal lives out on other kids or being cruel for cruelty’s sake. But both seem to be seeking self-esteem through power over others.

2 kinds of empathy

So it can be helpful to know that high status aggressors can have empathy too – just not the kind we typically think of when we hear the word. It’s “cognitive empathy”: the kind that enables them to manipulate people without guilt or without feeling the other person’s pain (low status aggressors usually lack even cognitive empathy).

Add psychopathy to cognitive empathy, an Australian study found, and you get high status aggressors – people who bully, troll, harass, manipulate, etc. to their own social or emotional advantage. “The ‘trolls’ in the study scored higher than average on two traits: psychopathy and cognitive empathy,” the authors of the study, at Federation University near Melbourne, wrote. They looked at the two kinds of empathy in relation to online “trolling.”  So, psychopathology can show up in “high-status bullying” too. [Psychopathy generally includes “a lack of feeling for others, selfishness, lack of guilt, and a superficial charm that manifests exclusively to manipulate others,” according to an article on it in MedicalDaily.com.]

The helpful kind of empathy

What we usually think of when we hear the word “empathy” is “affective empathy.” People with high affective empathy “experience, internalize and respond to other people’s emotions,” according to the Australian researchers. Empathy is one of the competencies of social-emotional learning that are taught in many U.S. elementary and middle schools (eventually in all schools, ideally, for the social and academic benefits they bring to students and school cultures).

So it’s good to know, because there may always be a minority of human beings somewhere on the psychopathology spectrum (about 1%, according to LiveScience.com), there may always be a tiny minority of students who choose to use social skills to their advantage and others’ disadvantage or harm – and they’re called “high status perpetrators” because there’s more than one kind of empathy, and they’re skilled at the calculating cognitive kind.

It’s also good to know that most students neither like nor contribute to drama or “mayhem” and, with social-emotional learning, can use their affective empathy and other skills to co-create positive social norms and school climates.

Related links

  • Students’ power to reduce conflict: A study of 56 U.S. middle schools by researchers at Princeton, Rutgers and Yale Universities found “it is possible to reduce conflict with a student-driven intervention. By encouraging a small set of [socially influential] students to take a public stance against typical forms of conflict at their school, our intervention reduced overall levels of conflict by an estimated 30%,” the researchers write in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).
  • The latest national study on bullying and cyberbullying by the Cyberbullying Research Center confirmed “a significant overlap between school and online bullying” that its co-author, Prof. Sameer Hinduja, said they had long known about, e.g., “83% of the students who had been cyberbullied within the last 30 days also had been bullied at school recently, and 69% of the students who admitted to bullying others at school also bullied others online,” because “what causes or induces someone to be harassing or cruel at school also causes them to act in the same ways online.” What will help, Hinduja said, is resilience. “Students with the highest levels of resiliencies indicated that bullying – when it happened – did not impact them very much at all” (see my “The resilience part of digital parenting (& kids’ safety)” and the Center’s “ABC Model to Build Resilience Against Cyberbullying”).
  • However, “looking back over the last decade, there has been a fairly steady decline in the percent of students who report being bullied at school,” according to the Cyberbullying Research Center, based on students’ answers to these seven questions: 1) “Has another student made fun of you, called you names, or insulted you, in a hurtful way?”; 2) “Has another student spread rumors about you or tried to make others dislike you?”; 3) “Has another student threatened you with harm?”; 4) “Has another student pushed you, shoved you, tripped you, or spit on you?”; 5) “Has another student tried to make you do things you did not want to do?”; 6) “Has another student excluded you from activities on purpose?”; and 7) “Has another student destroyed your property on purpose?”
  • Bullying also down in another study: A new study at the University of Virginia found bullying down and feelings of safety up in U.S. schools. It also found an increase in students’ sense of belonging at their schools and perceptions that adults help to stop bullying.
  • “Harmful speech online: At the intersection of algorithms & human behavior,” Dr. Hinduja’s notes from a conference on the subject at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center
Cyberbullying chart

Progress since 2007 on the digital side of social cruelty (chart from Cyberbullying Research Center)

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