In this article, I will seek to elucidate the effects of empathy on bullying and its creation of bystanders. I posit that low levels of empathy will significantly predict bullying behaviours; both the violent and nonviolent. Additionally, I aim to delineate empathy’s role on bystanders. I will attempt to answer such questions as, “Does a bystander’s low empathy levels predict the perpetuation of these types of misconduct?” It seems almost obvious that any transgression (physical and nonphysical) of a person be related to low levels of empathy. However, how do the witnesses of acts of bullying rate on empathy? I contend that much like bullies, low empathy breeds bystanders. Empathy has been defined as ‘the ability to understand and share another’s emotional state or context’. It is a complex construct in which cognitive and affective aspects can be distinguished. The cognitive component refers to skills of recognizing others’ emotions and taking others’ perspectives, whereas the affective component involves sharing others’ feelings (Caravita, S. S., Di Blasio, P., & Salmivalli, C. 2009). Bullying and its devastating consequences unceasingly remind us of the epidemic-like problems entrenched in teenaged-life. Despite the educational interventions designed to streamline the issue, teen suicides and mental health problems continue to perpetuate. By studying the causes and effects of bullying from a variety of aspects, psychologists aim to put an end to this public health issue. Bullying remains a social phenomenon and seems to be intrinsically connected to child development. However, with a psychological understanding of its underlying issues, particularly with empathy levels of all parties involved (bullies, victims and bystanders); we may yet discover solutions to end to bullying.
Bullying is widely defined as the systematic abuse of power. More specifically, school bullying involves situations in which ‘a student is repeatedly abused or victimized by one or several other students’. There is a broad consensus in the international scientific community that the defining features of bullying are the deliberate intentions to harm a victim, the repetition of the behaviour over a period of time and the relational asymmetry between bully and victim. (Bacchini, D., Esposito, G., & Affuso, G. 2009). Bullying is regarded as a special type of aggressive behavior [Berkowitz, 1993] and is also classified as an indicator of conduct disorder within the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual (DSM-IV-TR) (Idsoe, T., Solli, E., & Cosmovici, E. 2008). Recently, society has seen a slew of seemingly isolated occurrences of bullying.
This fact is glaringly evident with the unfortunate suicide of teen, Amanda Todd, in Surrey, British Columbia. The rise of social media networks has paralleled the rise of a new kind of bullying: cyberbullying, which is separate from overt aggression (physical bullying) yet related to nonviolent bullying (relational aggression). Despite this newer form of bullying taking a less violent embodiment, its consequences remain unfailingly insidious. Research suggests that bullies and their victims are more susceptible to psychological problems in adult life. In particular, bullies have a higher than average probability of externalizing their problems while victims have an increased risk of internalizing disorders such as anxious-depressive states, somatization and social withdrawal (Bacchini, D., Esposito, G., & Affuso, G. 2009). Recently evidenced with the propagation of teen suicides due to bullying, the consequences of bullying remain an important issue. Interestingly, while it was previously argued that bullies have low levels of self-esteem, contrasting research shows aggressive people may possess high self-esteem. In addition, whilst some bullies have social skill deficits, others have been found to be good at manipulating others. Thus, it seems that rather than having social cognitive skills deficits, some bullies have heightened skills, which they use to manipulate and control others. So, bullies may be good at manipulating others because they are knowledgeable about other’s feelings, and can predict the consequences of their behaviour on others. Such cognitive skills make ‘leaders’ of children who bully because they are able to take control over other children (Muñoz, L. C., Qualter, P., & Padgett, G. 2011). As previously stated, an important factor in the creation of bullies is steeped in their personality traits. Another contributing factor lies in the environmental upbringing of a child. An analysis of personal characteristics and parental styles show that they are deeply connected to bullying. Bullies tend to have authoritarian parents with whom they had frequent disagreements (Baldry, A. C., & Farrington, D. P., 2000). In the past, the field of psychology dedicated to studying bullying examined the personality characteristics of the bully and victim. Researchers specifically explored their personality traits, emotional and socio-cognitive abilities or parenting styles of the bully and victim. Research on empathy and bullying hopes to further this complex social phenomenon.
Those who bully seem to be ignorant of the severity of the social pain that bullying can elicit. Therefore, we contend that those who bully are not stringently malicious; however they exhibit a lack of empathy otherwise present in non-bullying individuals. In a study, Examining the Relationship Between Low Empathy and Bullying, researchers posit that low affective empathy is significantly related to bullying for females, but not for males. Information for this study was obtained from 720 adolescents (376 males, 344 females) in grade 10 (age of about 15) from three schools in Hertfordshire. Anonymous self-report questionnaires were administered in classrooms by an experienced researcher. Empathy was measured using the Basic Empathy Scale (BES). This 20- item scale assesses both cognitive and affective empathy and was designed to measure the degree to which a person understands and shares the emotions of another. A bullying questionnaire based on that used by Whitney and Smith  was used to measure the relationship between low empathy and bullying. Only the questions regarding bullying others were analysed. Direct bullying, both physical (e.g. hitting or kicking others) and verbal (e.g. calling others names) and indirect (e.g. rejecting others) were all included. All questions measured the prevalence and frequency of bullying. Students could indicate whether they bullied others “once or twice”, “sometimes”, “about once a week”, “several times a week” or if it had “never happened” in that period. The results show that males who report bullying do not differ from non-bullies on any of the measures of empathy, however, males who bully frequently were found to be lacking in both affective and total empathy. Interestingly, females who bully also have significantly lower affective and total empathy than females who do not, but an exploratory analysis suggests that this bully/non-bully difference may be the result of the very low empathy of a small number of high frequency female bullies (Jolliffe, D., & Farrington, D. P. 2006). Further support for our claim that bullies exhibit low levels of empathy is found in another study named Unique and Interactive Effects of Empathy and Social Status on Involvement in Bullying, where affective and cognitive empathy, as well as the status variables, have seen some significant effects on involvement in bullying.The 461 participants in the study (234 males and 227 females) were pupils of 3 primary schools and 2 secondary schools in Northern Italy. Empathy was assessed by means of the HIFDS questionnaire, which taps two different dimensions of empathy: cognitive and affective. Cognitive empathy was measured through five items describing the understanding of others’ feelings (e.g., I’m able to recognize, before many other children, that other people’s feelings have changed), and affective empathy by seven items about sharing others’ feelings. Participants were asked to evaluate the extent to which each item was true for them, using a four-point likert scale (from 1 = never true to 4 = always true). A short version of the participant role questionnaire (PRQ) was administered to assess children’s involvement in bullying either by bullying others or by defending the victims (Menesini & Gini, 2000; Salmivalli et al., 1996; Sutton & Smith, 1999). The bullying items assessed ‘ringleader’-type bullying behaviors, such as ‘starts the bullying’ and ‘convincing other children to bully’. The measure was a peer nomination questionnaire, which first presented a definition of bullying and then asked the respondents to think about situations in which somebody had been bullied, responding to seven items describing different behaviors. For each item, the participants had to indicate five classmates who most often behaved in the way described, and rate how often each of these classmates behaved in that way on a two-point scale (1 = sometimes, 2 = often). The results showed that bullying was negatively linked to affective empathy and social preference, and positively to perceived popularity, whereas defending was positively associated with both affective empathy and social preference. Social status of the child is also clearly linked to bullying-related behaviors. Furthermore, in accordance with the child-by-environment perspective, individual (empathy) and interpersonal (social status) variables were found to interact in predicting bullying and defending. The comparison of two age groups and boys and girls revealed similarities and some differences in the relations between the variables under study. (Caravita, S. S., Di Blasio, P., & Salmivalli, C. 2009).
Although the vast majority of bullying episodes occur with peers present, only in about 10-20% of these cases are there any kind of intervention. Rather than exclusively involving the victim and bully, bullying is a group process. Viewing bully behaviour is a form of support for the bully. This realization has only elucidated in the minds of researchers in the last couple years, particularly in Italy, Netherlands and Germany (Gini, G., Albiero, P., Benelli, B., & Altoè, G. 2008).
To extrapolate from the last study, children who actively defend a victim are found to have higher levels of empathy than those who bully. Interestingly, additional research finds that those who defend victims of bullying do not have higher empathy levels than do those who passively bystand. Particularly, in Determinants of Adolescents’ Active Defending and Passive Bystanding Behavior in Bullying, the 2008 Italian study finds that defenders of bullying and passive bystanders are rated highly on empathetic responsiveness. This study aims to compare peer evaluated defender behaviour and bystander behaviour in an attempt to understand their overlaps, with a focus on empathy and perceived social self-efficacy. Researchers posit that differences will be found along social self-efficacy levels or defender and bystander behaviour. The study used 294 Italian students ranging between 12 and 14 years old. To identify the correlations of bystander and defender behaviour, students reported their peers’ behaviours using a Social Self-Efficacy Scale, while self-reporting on an empathy scale. Results point to high levels of empathy being positively associated with both defender and passive bystander behaviour. The difference between the two falls along the Social Self-Efficacy scale where higher levels were associated with defender behaviour. A combination of high empathy responsiveness and perceived social self-efficacy is likely to lead to active support from students witnessing bullying. Other factors for defending were not measured but from this study, we learn that teaching students to be assertive can help with bully interventions (Gini, G., Albiero, P., Benelli, B., & Altoè, G. 2008). Despite the ever-growing number of school based interventions, the bullying problem remains stubbornly entrenched. Such instances of bystander effect are not due to a lack of empathy, but rather through a diffusion of responsibility. The famous instance of Kitty Genovese exemplifies that the bystander effect does not deal with low empathy levels. Rather it is the mechanisms of trivialization, dissociation, embarrassment association, and the compliance with norms that children are moved to inaction. Coupled with the general lack of self-empowerment, that children feel and perceived peer pressure, the bystander effect in children is especially understandable. If not empathy then, what other mechanisms explain the bystander behaviour of bullying? In Active Defending and Passive Bystanding Behavior in Bullying: The Role of Personal Characteristics and Perceived Peer Pressure, Italian researchers sought to test for the effects of peer pressure on predictive defending and passive bystander behaviour. The study was examined along three perspectives: students’ attitudes towards the victims; their sense of responsibility for intervening; and different coping responses to witnessing bullying behaviours. 462 grade 7 and 8 Italian students took part (246 boys and 216 girls). The study used two informants: teacher and self reports. Participant Roles Questionnaires (PRQs) were distributed, examining three perspectives: physical, verbal, and relational types of bullying as well as a complimentary follow up on intervention behaviour (coping strategies, sense of personal responsibility for intervening, and perceived peer pressure). The results analyzed the correlations to expedite the concurrence of predictive information. Regardless of who reported it, whether teacher or student, coping strategies and perceived peer pressure were positively associated with active help towards a victim. Contrastingly, distancing strategies for coping were associated with passive bystander behaviour. And only under conditions of low peer pressure did defending co-occur with high personal responsibility (Pozzoli, T., & Gini, G. 2010). An interesting finding on peer pressure’s role on bullying and bystanders is found in the 2010 study Do Perceptions of Discrepancy Between Self and Group Norms Contribute to Peer Harassment at School? Researchers hypothesize that there is a discrepancy between private and group norms about the acceptability of bullying, examining the associations between personal norms and bystander behaviour. Children systematically misperceive group norms about bullying, consequently leading to larger occurrences of bystander behaviour and by extension, failure to intervene. The purpose of the study is to determine whether students misperceive group norms in the context of bullying and to examine the extent to which private and group norms are perceived to be discrepant. In New England, Massachusetts, 42 boys and 49 girls of the 8th grade were rated in bully behaviour involvement by their teachers. Self-report attitude questionnaires were administered to assess private attitudes about bullies and victims, as well as to assess their perception of peer attitudes. Again, the teacher rated bystander behaviour among students. From these questionnaires, it was found that students perceive their peers as holding less prosocial views comparing to themselves. This means that individual students perceived their class mates as more tolerant to bullies, less empathetic to victims, and less inclined to take responsibility to protect victims. This notion to feel “out of step” with the group, also called pluralistic ignorance, is especially marked in girls. The research also finds that the more out of tune a student feels with the group norm, the higher they were rated as passive bystanders by their teachers. However, students unfailingly rate themselves as more prosocial than their peers. There seems to be a major underestimation to which peers share views on bullying. Inaction feels safer than the option to help a victim of bullying. Despite these findings, we must be careful not to use these findings in a causal manner (Sandstrom, M. J., & Bartini, M. 2010). In addition, it further explains the propagation of bullying throughout North America.
In conclusion, I find that it is indeed true that bullies exhibit lower levels of empathy than other children. Surprisingly, bystanders do not show a significant decrease of empathy as compared to children who actively defend victims of bullying. A large part of this bystander effect can be attributed to a diffusion of responsibility as well as self-emanating pluralistic ignorance within a group. It seems as though empathy levels of bystanders remain intact, meaning that empathy is not any different from other witnesses, however a series of peer pressure complexities, including personal and in-group norm dissonance, are employed by bystanders to justify their inaction. This yields important insights so that we may begin to create educational interventions to combat widespread bullying. It is important to remember that those children that do bully are oftentimes victims themselves, albeit in different situations, and though their actions may be, they themselves are not inherently malicious. I therefore reject the claim that empathy plays a role in passive bystander behaviours. However I accept that empathy in low levels is itself an indicator of bully behaviour. With this knowledge can we then begin to curtail the problems surrounding bullying.
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Sandstrom, M. J., & Bartini, M. (2010). Do Perceptions of Discrepancy Between Self and Group Norms Contribute to Peer Harassment at School?. Basic & Applied Social Psychology, 32(3), 217-225. doi:10.1080/01973533.2010.495645