Brow Beat

The Moral Psychology of Bullies and Their Victims

A view of South Hadley, Massachusetts’ South Hadley High School, where prosecutors charged nine students with bullying Phoebe Prince, who later committed suicide.

Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

In May, several months after the suicide of 15-year-old Phoebe Prince, the Massachusetts legislature passed an emergency law designed to stop schoolyard bullying. Among the bill’s provisions are the designation of the fourth Wednesday in January as No Name Calling Day and a mandate that each school district provide age-appropriate and “evidence based” instruction on how to prevent bullying. That is to say, the anti-bullying efforts should be based on reputable scientific studies of the issue.

While Slate was publishing Emily Bazelon’s series on the Prince case this week, I happened to be in Connecticut for a meeting of psychologists who study the science of morality, organized by the Edge Foundation. The focus was more analytical than prescriptive, and the speakers didn’t spend much time on the question of how ethical behavior might be taught or encouraged among, say, a group of high-school students. (Such interventions almost always fail, said one participant, Jonathan Haidt.) But there was some discussion about how the minds—and, of course, the brains—of children might differ depending on their status as bullies or victims. Marc Hauser, professor of psychology at Harvard, described his recent (but still unpublished) work in this area. Do bullies and their victims possess the same understanding of right and wrong? Are they equally capable of compassion and empathy?

Together with a pair of Italian researchers, Gianluca Gini and Tiziana Pozzoli, Hauser looked at data from more than 700 children aged 9 to 13 years. The kids were asked to read a story and then rate what happened as being either good or bad. In some stories, one person deliberately harms another, or at least attempts to—e.g. by giving her a box of poison instead of sugar when they’re making lemonade. In a different version, the same act is done by accident.

When it comes to making moral judgments, adults and adolescents tend to focus on intention rather than outcome. That is to say, the “attempted harm” scenario seems worse than the “accidental harm” version. The ability to make this distinction seems to develop throughout childhood, however. In the study, the younger kids were more inclined to assign negative ratings to the “accidental harm” scenario.

So how does this relate to bullying? The researchers used peer descriptions to categorize the children as being either bullies, victims, or defenders of victims. It turned out that the bullies and defenders were similarly advanced in their moral judgments as compared to the victims. They each behaved more like adults, by rating the “attempted harm” scenario—I tried to poison you but failed—more negatively. The victims seemed to be delayed in their moral development; like the younger kids, they focused on the outcome as opposed to the intention.

A second analysis compared the three groups of children according to their responses on a quiz that measures moral disengagement, which relates to a child’s ability to suppress feelings of conscience and compassion. (The subjects had to rate their agreement with statements like, “Kids cannot be blamed for misbehaving if their friends pressured them to do it.”) According to the researchers, the bullies seemed more inclined to disengage than either the victims or the defenders.

In other words, the bullies knew right from wrong, but didn’t care. The victims cared, but were confused about right and wrong.

Other research suggests that about one-tenth of the population become bullies at an early age and persist in their bullying behavior. There’s also some evidence that victims may assume their roles at a young age. The new work from Gini, Pozzoli, and Hauser suggests that such tendencies might arise from relative deficiencies in moral psychology.