Why do bullies bully?

Forget all that psychobabble you’ve heard about how bullies bully because they are hurting on the inside, because they have some deep unmet need, because they are insecure, because someone has bullied them, blah blah blah.

No. Garbage.

Bullies bully for one reason, and one reason only: Because they can.

A quick snapshot from my childhood will help me make my point clear.

Peaceful resistance

The day we moved into the tidy ranch house on Columbia Street, the little girl who lived across the street came running over to greet us.

With her mischievous smile and zany sense of humor, “Julie” (not her real name) reminded me of a pixie. She was fun, she was funny, and my siblings and I — my brother Dave, the oldest; Carol, the middle child; and me — all liked her immediately. At five, she was almost exactly my age, which made her the ideal playmate for me.

It didn’t take long, though, for that ominous cue from Carol to enter the picture — the one that always came during play to indicate that it was time to start turning on me in a pleasant game of torture.

With the passage of time, and due to their sheer number, I have forgotten what the specific cue was in each case. Nor do I remember Julie’s specific response. But I do know that the cue was always there, the invitation to join the sadistic fun, because with Carol that was one thing that never varied. The cue was always there.

What I do remember distinctly is that no matter how many times Carol gave the cue, Julie’s response was always the same.


As in, Why would I want to do such a thing?

To say that Julie’s response floored me would be an understatement. It was a far cry from what usually happened when our family got together with friends who had kids our age. A far more typical experience was for our playmates to quickly realize that this was a fun game that had absolutely no unpleasant consequences, posed no risk to them, and offered absolutely no chance that they would get in trouble for it.

I had simply never encountered this sort of peaceful resistance before in any of our peers. But there it was, and it was very consistent. Every day, when Julie came over to play, I knew I could look forward to several hours of peace, no matter how often Carol proposed violence.

It became all the more significant to me when I learned, many years later, that Julie was coping with plenty of her own secret pain at the time.

Obviously, then, not everyone who has the opportunity to bully does so — even people who are hurting on the inside, have some deep unmet need, are insecure, and have themselves been bullied.

What kind of person becomes a bully?

So what, exactly, goes into the making of a bully?

According to numerous expert sources, there are three key ingredients.

The first ingredient is an innate and distinct character profile that is highly specific to bullies.

In his 1993 book, Bullying at school: What we know and what we can do, Dan Olweus, PhD, identifies several characteristics of students who are most likely to be bullies:

  • They have a strong need to dominate and subdue other kids and to get their own way
  • They are impulsive and easily angered
  • They are often defiant, aggressive or contemptuous toward adults, including parents and teachers
  • They show little empathy toward other children who are victimized

Recent psychological research has debunked several deeply entrenched myths associated with bullying. For example, it has long been held that bullies are essentially anxious, insecure individuals who use bullying as a means of compensating for poor self-esteem. Using a number of different methodologies, including projective tests and stress hormones, Olweus concludes that there is no support for such a view. To the contrary, most bullies that have been studied had average or higher than average self-esteem.

In the case of my own two siblings, the description does not seem to fit my brother — who more often than not was a willing participant in the bullying, rather than being the instigator. But as for Carol, who was nearly always the one who initiated the abuse, the description is remarkably accurate.

An innate disposition

From my earliest memories, my older sister has always been supremely convinced of her own superiority over others. That sense of superiority encompassed everyone she encountered, whether within or outside the family. It included teachers, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, friends, celebrities, public figures, and every  president within living memory.

As a child, she could be remarkably impervious to any evidence that might suggest her to be something other than her internal self-image of perfection. With maturity, that overweening arrogance has been tempered some by the usual bumps and bruises most people encounter in life. But at core, she maintains the deep conviction that no one else is as smart, as competent or as valuable as she.

Lest you think I am merely using the safety of this platform to strike back at someone who caused me great suffering as a child, let me assure you that is not the case. She herself would tell you my portrayal is very accurate. She would have no shame in doing so because she does not care what you think. Remember, she is better than you.

How did she come by such hubris? It’s a source of continual bafflement to me, particularly since I seem to have come out on the opposite extreme. All I can tell you is that she seems to have been born with it, and it seems to be a permanent fixture of her DNA.

This character profile is what enables bullies to be oblivious to and unconcerned about the pain they are inflicting on their victims — even, in fact, to derive pleasure from it. It allows them, with a completely clear conscience, to lie about and deny the vicious games they play. And it allows them, more often than not, to wipe their memories completely clean of ruthless incidents they have instigated and participated in, leaving their victims to struggle alone with the painful memories.

Authority figures asleep at the switch

The second ingredient in the making of a bully is opportunity. In practical terms, that translates to an absence of effective monitoring and intervention by authority figures: parents, teachers, etc. In his 1991 book Perilous Rivalry: When Siblings Become Abusive, psychologist Vernon R. Wiehe describes a pattern of “parental ignorance, disbelief and inaction” when adults fail to intervene appropriately on behalf of a bullied child.

Wiehe was writing specifically about abuse happening within the sibling context, which obviously is a subject that is of particular relevance to me in my writing. However, judging by stories that others have shared with me, it’s safe to say that such responses from parents, teachers and others in positions of authority are universally disastrous, and can all but guarantee that the abuse will continue, regardless of the context.

Wiehe presents a list of unhelpful adult responses, all of which were typical patterns exhibited by my own parents. They include:

*  Ignoring or minimizing the abuse

*  Denial

*  Blaming the victim

*  Doubt and disbelief

*  Indifference

*  Other inappropriate responses, some of which actually trigger more abuse. (In my case, for example, my parents frequently rewarded my siblings by giving them special treats while punishing me for having asked for help).

*  Joining in the abuse, which Wiehe says is “the worst response.” This, too was a frequent response from my parents.

Fringe benefits for the bully

The third ingredient in creating a bully is reward. There’s some payoff for the bullies to bully, or they wouldn’t keep doing it. Those rewards can range from gaining approval of teachers and parents to increased social status and power among their peers.

According to Rachel Simmons, an author writing in the Oct. 14, 2010, issue of Newsweek, bullying and aggression “can yield rich social rewards like attention, more friends, and power.”

So powerful are those rewards that Dr. Olweus has developed a bullying prevention program* that acts specifically to “change the ‘opportunity and reward structures’ for bullying behavior, resulting in fewer opportunities and rewards for bullying.” The program has been implemented in a number of U.S. schools over the course of a 20-year period, with impressive results. Schools have reported significant reductions in the number of bullying incidents, in associated anti-social behaviors such as drinking and theft, and substantial improvements in the overall social atmosphere to reward more positive interactions.

*For more information about the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, go to the web site:



Some obvious conclusions

What can we conclude about bullies from all of this research? Three things seem clear:

1.  Bullies are inherently predisposed by their very natures to bully.

2.  Give them the opportunity to bully, and they’ll do it.

3.  Reward them for their bullying, and they’ll keep it up.

The opposite corollary, I hope, is equally obvious: Remove any one of those ingredients, and you stop a potential bully from inflicting harm on another person.

The likelihood of being able to change a person’s innate personality is a topic that goes far beyond my expertise to comment on. But it should be fairly clear that the other two ingredients — opportunity and reward — are well within the range of factors that can readily be controlled by effective monitoring and intervention.

And that’s very good news.

Well, maybe not for bullies.


© 2012 by Ann Graham Price. All rights reserved.

Your turn

OK, readers. It’s your turn. Is it a new idea for you to consider that bullies are not sad and insecure — that, in fact, their self-esteem is unusually high? What does that suggest to you about the approaches people typically adopt in dealing with bullies? Is it time to re-think our strategies and possibly take a stronger stance? Please let me know your thoughts and ideas, and share them in the comment area below.