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Developmental psychology

The well-mannered mobber

Munich, 02/20/2013

Schoolchildren who bully their fellow-pupils are not viewed as being particularly sociable. But a new study by LMU developmental psychologist Mechthild Schäfer shows that they can be very agreeable – when it comes to manipulating others.

“A friendly child who helps others”: At first sight, that description doesn’t fit the conventional image of the aggressive bully, who systematically torments and humiliates classmates. Now, a new study done by a research team headed by Mechthild Schäfer, a developmental psychologist at LMU Munich, shows that there is another side to bullies.

The study is based on a survey in which 2600 schoolchildren, representing 1st to 10th graders, took part. The aim of the investigation was to characterize and compare the behavior of bullies in primary and secondary schools, and learn more about how their classmates perceive them.

Stigma mobbing?
Pupils who engage in mobbing wish to dominate their classmates. As the new study demonstrates, their success often comes at the price of popularity and esteem. In primary schools especially, bullies are not particularly well regarded by their peers.

But then there are the so-called “bistrategics”, who employ both negative and positive modes of behavior to bolster and safeguard their position. In contrast to classical bullies, these individuals are much appreciated by their fellows, and indeed are the most influential members of their class. Mechthild Schäfer explains this apparent paradox as follows: “Bullies use coercion to attain their dominant position, but to retain it they must be able to behave in more appealing ways.”

Thus, being nice to others, and willing to cooperate with them, can be a deliberate strategy to ensure one’s own popularity in class. Indeed, the study shows that bullies tend to employ positive social strategies more frequently as they get older. In particular in secondary schools, bullies are more likely to make use of strategies such as showing a readiness to help or support others. “Teachers must recognize that socially competent pupils are also capable of making life difficult for their classmates,” Schäfer says.

The study is part of a comprehensive research program now underway in the Department of Psychology (Faculty of Psychology and Education) at LMU Munich, which is designed to assess the role of classmates in the mobbing process.

Gewalt ist keine Lösung, aber eine coole Alternative? Was Täter bei Bullying so erfolgreich macht (Aggression – not a solution, but a cool alternative? How to be a successful bully)
Manuel Stoiber and Mechthild Schäfer
Praxis der Kinderpsychologie und Kinderpsychiatrie 2013, Special Issue Peerbeziehungen, 3/2013

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