The Bully-Victim Spectrum

When I decided to communicate with one of the boys (now men) who bullied me in Elementary School, I neglected to think critically about my purpose for choosing this interaction. Although a part of me wanted to reach a deeper level of reconciliation with him, there was another part of me that simply wanted to self-verify that he was still a jerk. Not surprisingly, my accusations were pretty inaccurate. Over time, I began to learn that he was a person with needs and pains as deep as my own. Emotionally conflicted between what I knew to be true about the past and the new exchange that was being written, only one piece of the story was clear: I could no longer realistically place him in the bully-box.

Years later, I was forced to reconceptualize the way I understand people who bully. Social psychology researchers have also questioned the alleged paradox of the terms “bully” and “victim,” opting to use the term “bully-victim” to describe an individual who clearly meets objective criteria to fall in both categories.1 To understand why our tendency to return to dichotomizing “bullies” and “victims” is unhelpful, we need to think critically about why people engage in bullying behavior and question whether non-victim bullies exist with any frequency. Exceptions may occur if a person acquires a specific brain lesion or is predisposed to have strong antisocial tendencies.2 Nonetheless, even when these unfortunate circumstances take place, our collective response will be more appropriate when we view aggression as a complex blend of environmental,3 biological,4 and spiritual5 factors that affect all individuals. Through this lens, we can explore the victim-bully spectrum, and begin to shift our perspective away from identifying perpetrators, and toward reconciliation with hurting people.

One of the ways to describe the relationship between a bullying individual and a victimized individual is to use the analogy of a corrupt teacher and a student. In this case, the teacher imposes distorted beliefs. If the victimized individual openly rejects the distorted belief, she or he will be punished. Thus, acceptance of the distorted belief facilitates survival in the moment by allowing the victimized individual to escape further abuse. Although the process of internalizing prejudicial attitudes is not a conscious choice, it can seriously influence the victimized individual’s thought patterns.

For example, a person who is consistently bullied about her weight may feel more judgemental toward other people’s weight. A person who is consistently told that she has poor clothing may feel more judgemental toward other people’s clothing. A person who is consistently told that he is too feminine may feel more judgemental toward people based on their masculinity or femininity. Unfortunately, some victimized individuals may begin to engage in behaviors that coincide with the internalized prejudicial attitudes. A bully-victim who has been repeatedly judged about her weight at school, may begin to bully her younger sister who is overweight. When she bullies, her internalized prejudice becomes externalized. Thankfully, many victimized individuals will choose to combat, rather than act, on the prejudices they have internalized.

Studies on African American children who report that they believe white skin is better than darker skin confirm the negative effects of internalized prejudice. The original doll experiments in the 1940s showed that African American children had a clear preference for white dolls over black dolls.6 Today, we have studies that replicate the original findings, to a lesser magnitude.7 Although internalized racism is embedded in systemic oppression, an African American student who is told that her or his skin is suboptimal will experience a heightened sense of internalized prejudice.

Beyond teaching prejudicial attitudes, an individual participating in bullying behaviors also may influence the behaviors of the victimized person. Modeling and social learning do apply in this context. Particularly with children, the actions of the “teacher” are more influential than instructions.8 Consider a few examples from my Elementary School. “Psicologa” Lucia, who taught Behavior, showed us Edward Zwick’s “Blood Diamond” to teach us about racism. Educator Hector repeatedly encouraged kids to touch each other’s bodies.9 A social studies instructor called several students dimwitted and stupid. If these behaviors were mirrored by the students, this may provide some insight into the hitting and choking, the inappropriate touching, and the derogatory comments directed at people who were deemed less intelligent or elite. Whether the victimized individual repeats any of these behaviors may depend on situational and personality factors. Some victimized individuals may be too outcasted to fight back; others may find the strength to reject what they are taught. Nonetheless, when the bullying is chronic, the experience of these behaviors is embedded in the victimized individual’s thoughts and way of viewing life.

People who chronically engage in bullying behavior or experience victimization often share a tendency to seek out ways to boost their fragile self-esteems. The relationship between self-esteem and bullying is more complex than what social psychology researchers previously anticipated. For example, Baumeister and colleagues have demonstrated that it is inappropriate to view low self-esteem as playing a causative role in bullying behavior.10 Nevertheless, regardless of whether the bullying individual has a low or high self-esteem, boosting one’s self-esteem is a relevant motivational factor for bullying behavior.11 Think about what you might gain from being the bully in this hypothetical interaction (the example is in Spanish because these scenarios are based on true experiences, although note that this example could have taken place in any culture).

Manuel points to Camila in the corner, “¿Nerdita, que zapatos te pusiste hoy? (Nerd, what shoes did you wear today?).

The group around Manuel giggles.

Camila looks around; there is no escape, and she knows this conversation will not end well.

“No me importa,” (I don’t care) she replies cautiously.

“Te deberia importar, nerda negra. ¿o es que te pones ropa sucia sin lavarla?” (You should care, black nerd. Or do you wear your clothes without washing?”).

¡No, claro que lavo mi ropa! ¡Vete! (No, of course I wash my clothes! Go away!).

Mentiras, hasquerosa, eres cochina. (Lies, gross one.You are filthy.)

Take a moment to think about what Manuel gains from this interaction. Perhaps confirmation that he is more valuable than he originally thought because Natalia is clearly inferior due to her clothing? When she rejects his belief, we see that threatening the self-esteem of an individual who has narcissistic tendencies provokes further bullying behavior (e.g., “You should care, black nerd”) to ascertain that he is right and she is wrong. Likewise, Manuel teaches Natalia to have low self-esteem by basing her worth on her clothing and emphasizing that she is dirty. Like prejudicial attitudes and behaviors, people who are victimized may adopt this sense of inferiority. Fortunately, some people will be able to breakdown the emotional power that the bullying individual holds over the victimized individual’s fragile self-esteem.

At this point, it is worth re-emphasizing that whether victimized individuals proceed to become bully-victims varies with factors like personality12 and social psychological dynamics.13 Moreover, individuals who bully and individuals who are victimized often do not choose to internalize prejudicial attitudes or adopt a fragile self-esteem. Instead, the bully/victim relationship is a forced one: One individual’s pain pushed onto another hurting human being. I believe that recognizing the similar wounds that bullying and victimized individuals face does not diminish the victimized individual’s experience. To the contrary, it allows us to think more critically about how people along the bully-victim spectrum can find deeper healing.

Bullying individuals must begin to recognize where their prejudices came from. Their pain must come to the surface in order for them to fully empathize with the pain of the people they are mistreating. The victimized individual, after removing self-blame, must acknowledge ways that her or his beliefs and attitudes have been polluted. Wrestling with these beliefs and denouncing the bully’s ability to emotionally manipulate may invite deeper healing and prevent the development of bully-victim behaviors. All of us can begin to recognize ways that we have played “bully” and “victim” roles, perpetuating prejudicial attitudes that we have been taught. As we learn how to accept that our attitudes and behaviors have been polluted, we can have deeper compassion for ourselves and the bully-victims that surround us every day.

  1. Cook, C. R., Williams, K. R., Guerra, N. G., Kim, T. E., & Sadek, S. (2010). Predictors of bullying and victimization in childhood and adolescence: A meta-analytic investigation. School Psychology Quarterly, 25(2), 65-83. 

  2. Lane, S. D., Kjome, K. L., & Moeller, F. G. Neuropsychiatry of aggression. Neurologic Clinics, 29(1), 49-64. 

  3. e.g. Dou, C., Wei, Z., Jin, K., Wang, H., Wang, X., & Peng, Z. (2015). Family and social environmental factors associated with aggression among Chinese adolescents. School Psychology Quarterly, 30(3), 421-430. 

  4. e.g., Huesmann, L. R., Dubow, E. F., & Boxer, P. (2011). The transmission of aggressiveness across generations: Biological, contextual, and social learning processes. Herzilya series on personality and social psychology. Human aggression and violence: Causes, manifestations, and consequences (p. 123-142). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association. 

  5. e.g., Shen, M. J., Haggard, M. C., Strassburger, D. C., & Rowatt, W. C. (2013). Testing the love the neighbor hypothesis: Religiosity’s association with positive attitudes toward ethnic/racial and value-violating out groups. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 5(4), 294-303. 

  6. Dweck, C. S. (2009). Prejudice: How it develops and how it can be undone. Human Development, 52(6), 371-376. 

  7. Bagby-Young, V. L. (2008). Mirror, mirror on the dresser, why are Black dolls still viewed as lesser? When Black children turn a blind face to their own race: The Doll Study revisited. (Doctoral dissertation). Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database. (UMI No. 3302662). 

  8. Brace, J. J., Morton, J. B., Munakata, Y. (2006). When actions speak louder than words: Improving children’s flexibility in a card-sorting task. Psychological Science, 17(8), 665-669. 

  9. This educator would have a couple stand in front of the class as a punishment for failing the class assignment. Then, the couple would be told to take turns inappropriately laying hands on the other person. 

  10. Baumeister, R. F., Bushman, B. J., Campbell, W. K. (2000). Self-esteem, narcissism, and aggression: Does violence result from low self-esteem of from threatened egotism? American Psychological Society, 9(1), 26-29. 

  11. Romera, E. M., Herrera-López, M., Casas, J. A., Ortega-Ruiz, R., Gómez-Ortiz, O. (2017). Multidimensional social competence, motivation, and cyberbullying: A cultural approach with Colombian and Spanish adolescents. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 48(8), 1183-1197. 

  12. Volk, A. A., Schiralli, K., Xia, X., Zhao, J., & Dane, A. V. (2018). Adolescent bullying and personality: A cross-cultural approach. Personality and Individual Differences, 125, 126-132. 

  13. Idsoe, T., Solli, E., & Cosmovici, E. M. (2008). Social psychological processes in family and school: More evidence on their relative etiological significance for bullying behavior. Aggressive Behavior, 34(5), 460-474.