How can we reduce bullying behavior in American grade schools? To answer this question, we need to examine not only the factors that cause bullying but also the factors that reinforce it. Even with the widespread implementation of zero tolerance policies, bullying remains a serious problem to be contended with. By some estimates, twenty percent of students are either bullies or the victims of bullies (Jenkins and Nickerson, 2016). By other estimates, thirty percent of middle school and high school students report bullying other students or being the victims of bullying (Nickerson, Aloe, Livingston, and Feeley, 2014). However, bullying is not a dyadic interaction. As Salmivalli notes, bullies have an audience most of the time; in fact, they need the attention of their peer group to get what they want out of bullying behavior (2014). Research into the motivations behind bullying has found that it is often motivated by a desire for visibility, power, and elevated status within the peer group (Salmivalli, 2014). Thus, although only twenty to thirty percent of students are bullies or their victims, the other seventy to eighty percent are involved in some lesser capacity. They are for all intents and purposes bystanders who can assume roles that either reinforce or inhibit the bully’s behavior. Jenkins and Nickerson outline four roles that bystanders can assume during bullying events. Bystanders can reinforce bullying by laughing and egging the bully on or by directly assisting the bully by joining him or her in abusing the victim (Jenkins and Nickerson, 2016). On the other hand, bystanders can inhibit bullying by defending the victim (Jenkins and Nickerson, 2016). Bystanders can also be neutral outsiders that are either unaware of the situation or indifferent to it (Jenkins and Nickerson, 2016). If bystanders are crucial to bullying, then reducing or preventing bullying is a matter of making more bystanders willing to defend the victims and less bystanders willing to reinforce the bully or remain outsiders to the situation.
To understand why peers ignore or even reinforce bullying behavior, we must look at it as a social phenomenon called the bystander effect. The bystander effect is people’s tendency to ignore strangers in need, particularly in emergency situations, as the number of other strangers around increases (Baron and Branscombe, 2017). It is usually affected through two mechanisms: the diffusion of responsibility and pluralistic ignorance (Baron and Branscombe, 2017). The diffusion of responsibility occurs when all bystanders assume that someone else will step in and help the person in need (Baron and Branscombe, 2017). Pluralistic ignorance results from a lack of social informational influence. We usually rely on social cues from others to determine what we should do in ambiguous situations. However, when we face an ambiguous situation in which no one around us is certain of what to do, we hesitate and refrain from acting. The tendency for everyone to hesitate and do nothing in an ambiguous situation is pluralistic ignorance (Baron and Branscombe, 2017). The Latane and Darley bystander intervention model outlines a five step process bystanders take in determining whether to intervene in emergency situations (Nickerson, Aloe, Livingston, and Feeley, 2014). First, bystanders must notice the situation; second, they have to interpret it as an emergency situation; third, they have to accept personal responsibility for helping the person in need; fourth, they have to determine how to help the person in need, and finally they have to execute their decision to intervene (Nickerson, Aloe, Livingston, and Feeley, 2014). Applying this frame work to bullying would help researchers figure out where bystanders, especially outsiders, become inhibited.
Within this frame work, the research is mixed concerning which factors contribute to the bystander effect in bullying situations. Thornberg and Jungert suggest that moral sensitivity and defender self-efficacy determine whether students intervene to defend the victims of bullying, reinforce bullying, or remain passive. Their hypothesis, reliant on the social-cognitive domain theory, holds that increased moral sensitivity, the ability to recognize moral issues in complex situations, will tend to reduce bully reinforcing behavior and increase victim defending behavior (Thornberg and Jungert, 2013). Furthermore, increased defender self-efficacy will tend to be positively related to victim defending behavior and negatively related to passive bystander behavior (Thornberg and Jungert, 2013). In accordance with their hypothesis, a survey study of three hundred and seventy-four Swedish secondary students revealed a strong negative association between moral sensitivity and bully reinforcing behavior as well as a strong positive association between defender self-efficacy and victim defending behavior (Thornberg and Jungert, 2013). Using four subscales to replicate the Latane and Darley bystander intervention model, Nickerson, Aloe, Livingston, and Feeley found that empathy was the single strongest predictor of victim defending behavior (2014). According to this model, the more empathetic students are more likely to notice bullying (step 1), interpret it as an emergency (step 2), accept personal responsibility for helping the victim (step 3), determine a course of action (step 4) and act on their decision (Nickerson, Aloe, Livingston, and Feeley, 2014). Attitudes towards bullying also strongly predicted bystander intervention in bullying but didn’t contribute as much variance as empathy (Nickerson, Aloe, Livingston, and Feeley, 2014). Salmivalli, Voeten, and Poskiparta found that differences among class rooms significantly predicted how often bullying occurs (2011). They found that seven percent of the variation in bullying was due to differences among classrooms (Salmivalli, Voeten, and Poskiparta, 2011). This variation depends on the degree to which classmates reinforce or discourage bullying (Salmivalli, Voeten, and Poskiparta, 2011). Examining two different approaches to step three of Latane and Darley’s bystander intervention model (accepting responsibility to intervene), Pozzoli and Gini found that positive attitudes towards the victims of bullying was positively correlated with feeling responsibility to help the victim (2012). Furthermore, both positive attitudes and feelings of responsibility predicted a coping approach to bullying (victim defending behavior) and was negatively associated with distancing behavior (being a passive bystander) (Pozzoli and Gini, 2012).
Most studies found significant gender differences in victim defending behavior. In a survey study of three hundred junior high students, Jenkins and Nickerson found that girls were more likely to interpret bullying events as emergencies than boys (2016). Thus, girls were also more likely to defend victims than boys (Jenkins and Nickerson, 2016). Thornberg and Jungert found that girls demonstrated a greater degree of moral sensitivity in bullying situations compared to boys (2013). Girls also demonstrated less moral disengagement in bullying situations compared to boys (Thornberg and Jungert, 2013). Adding to the consensus, Pozzoli and Gini found that girls scored higher than boys on measures of victim defending behavior, attitudes against bullying and approach coping strategies (2012).
The limitations of the studies discussed are remarkably similar. Since all the studies were conducted through surveys they all relied on self-reported measures. As such the data gathered in these studies was subject to the participants’ memory bias, social desirability bias, and exaggerated responses. Moreover, since these were cross sectional studies that gathered data from a specific population at a specific point in time, they failed to establish causal relationships between variables which would be necessary to corroborate the Latane and Darley bystander intervention model. Most of these studies are also limited in their external validity. Although most of them used data from hundreds of students, their sample was concentrated in one school or one region in one country, which compromises the generalizability of their results. Future survey research into bystander behavior during bullying situations should not only be longitudinal but international as well. A fourth point of contention is found in the construct validity of the survey measures used. For instance, Thornberg and Jungert used a new construct of moral sensitivity measured with only three items. Perhaps relying on older measures of empathy and other pro-social traits might help us better understand why bystanders choose to intervene or remain passive to bullying. Finally, an observational study would be necessary to overcome problems related to self-reported data. Even a longitudinal study would be subject to them and would fail if to many participants discontinued. An observational study would give researchers a unique insight into how bystanders react in real time as opposed to what they remember.
Branscombe, N., & Baron, R. (2017). Social psychology. Boston, MA: Pearson Publishing. ISBN-13: 9780134410968
Jenkins, L. N., & Nickerson, A. B. (2016). Bullying participant roles and gender as predictors of bystander intervention. Aggressive Behavior, 43(3), 281-290. doi:10.1002/ab.21688
Nickerson, A. B., Aloe, A. M., Livingston, J. A., & Feeley, T. H. (2014). Measurement of the bystander intervention model for bullying and sexual harassment. Journal of Adolescence, 37(4), 391-400. doi:10.1016/j.adolescence.2014.03.003
Pozzoli, T., & Gini, G. (2012). Why Do Bystanders of Bullying Help or Not? A Multidimensional Model. The Journal of Early Adolescence, 33(3), 315-340. doi:10.1177/0272431612440172
Salmivalli, C. (2014). Participant Roles in Bullying: How Can Peer Bystanders Be Utilized in Interventions? Theory Into Practice, 53(4), 286-292. doi:10.1080/00405841.2014.947222
Salmivalli, C., Voeten, M., & Poskiparta, E. (2011). Bystanders matter: Associations between defending, reinforcing, and the frequency of bullying in classrooms. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology,40, 668–676.
Thornberg, R., & Jungert, T. (2013). Bystander behavior in bullying situations: Basic moral sensitivity, moral disengagement and defender self-efficacy. Journal of Adolescence,36(3), 475-483. doi:10.1016/j.adolescence.2013.02.003