Low empathy linked to bully behaviour - expert

By Patrice Dougan

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Photo / Thinkstockphotos
Photo / Thinkstockphotos

Does the sight of someone in pain or distress do little to move you? If so, you may share something in common with a bully.

Research into what makes a bully tick shows many have low levels of empathy and can be described as "morally disengaged".

There was no set profile for a bully, said Dr Jaimee Stuart of the Victoria University school of psychology, but there were "some really common characteristics" which could usually be identified by how a child interacted with other children.

"Particularly if there's a lack of empathy and a lack of care for other people's feelings, those are quite key indicators."

Dr Stuart said: "A bully will tend to externalise their feelings, they'll tend to act out and they'll tend to have quite behavioural responses to their emotions."

Bullying was goal-driven, Dr Stuart said, usually to win admiration or respect from peers.

"Pure bullies tend to be more popular than other kids, and that's because there are two types of power-based behaviours that adolescents tend to engage in."

These were antisocial power, such as bullying, and prosocial power, or doing nice things for other people.

"But the unfortunate thing is that research shows there tends to be more ... admiration, for those who use antisocial power than those who use pro-social power," Dr Stuart said.

"So there is this motivation by individuals, because ... the behaviour is reinforced [by peer approval] to act out in antisocial ways."

This could be amplified online, making the bully "even more powerful", Dr Stuart said.

Cyberbullying had been shown to have "more of an impact on victims than traditional types of bullying".

The "potentially limitless" audience online was highly attractive to cyberbullies, she said, who would see it as gaining more social power from "potentially everyone on the internet" who could see their posts. But at the same time, it also provided an element of protection in its anonymity.

Dr Shyamala Nada-Raja, a senior research fellow in preventive and social medicine at the University of Otago, said there were a number of key factors which put young people at risk of becoming bullies.

"Firstly a cyberbully ... is more likely to also perpetrate traditional bullying behaviours," she said. "They also tend to be people who break rules [for example] alcohol misuse, smoking, truancy, petty theft."

There was also an "overlap" between bullies and victims, she said, so young people who had been the victim of bullying were more likely to become a bully themselves.

- NZ Herald

- Rotorua Daily Post

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