Even experts on bullying are clueless about sociopaths

The headline of a New York Times article sent to me by a Lovefraud reader last week was, Maybe bullies just want to be loved.

Yeah, right, I thought.

The article related the findings of two recent studies, one of them about schoolyard bullies. Dutch researchers from the University of Groningen investigated 481 elementary school children. Their findings, according to the Times:

Bullies tended to divide their classmates into potential sources of affection and targets for domination. The latter were children who had already been rejected by kids the bullies cared about: They didn’t count. Interestingly, bullies cared only about the approval of classmates of the same sex. Boys pick on kids whom their male peers disdain, but couldn’t care less what the girls think. Similarly, mean girls disregard their male classmates’ opinions. “Bullies are very strategic in their behavior,” explains the lead author, René Veenstra. “They’re looking for attention and affection from their own peer group.” In other words, bullies want friends.

The idea that bullies wanted affection and friends struck me as a bit odd, so I looked for more information on the study. It was published in the March/April 2010 issue of the journal Child Development. The full title is, The complex relation between bullying, victimization, acceptance, and rejection: Giving special attention to status, affection and sex differences.

Reading the beginning of the study, I came to realize the depth to which even the scientific community does not understand sociopaths. But before I explain this observation, let me provide a bit more background.

Multiple studies

This particular study is one of several published by the same group of Dutch researchers, apparently led by René Veenstra. They are involved in a long-term study of Dutch children called TRAILS (Tracking Adolescents’ Individual Lives Survey), designed to chart and explain the development of mental health and social development from preadolescence into adulthood. It began in 2000 and will continue through 2016.

Veenstra and colleagues published another study in 2005 called Bullying and victimization in elementary schools: A comparison of bullies, victims, bully/victims and uninvolved preadolescents. In the introduction, the study recounted the “Knowledge base on bullying:”

Research suggests that children and adolescents identified as bullies demonstrate poorer psychosocial functioning than their classmates. Bullies have been reported to be aggressive, impulsive, hostile, domineering, antisocial, and uncooperative toward peers and to exhibit little anxiety or insecurity. When they are in control, bullies feel more secure and less anxious. Surprisingly, according to self-reports, bullies make friends easily and obtain classmate support similar to that of uninvolved youth. Bullies believe they will achieve success through their aggression, are unaffected by inflicting pain and suffering, and process information about victims in a rigid and automatic fashion. Bullies believe that they pick on their victim because they are provoked or because they do not like the victim. They show poorer school adjustment, both in terms of achievement and well-being, and perceive less social support from teachers. These children may be more difficult in the classroom and frustrating for teachers. Evidence suggests that bullies come from homes in which parents prefer physical discipline, are sometimes hostile and rejecting, have poor problem-solving skills, and are permissive toward aggressive childhood behavior or even teach their children to strike back at the least provocation. (Citations omitted.)

In other words, schoolyard bullies are budding sociopaths, and often the children of full-fledged sociopaths. Other findings in the 2005 paper include:

  • A boy was more likely to be a bully than was a girl.
  • Parenting characteristics had no impact on bullying and victimization.
  • A main characteristic of bullies was aggressiveness.
  • Although bullies were disliked, they were not marginalized.

All of these findings are consistent with what we at Lovefraud know about sociopaths: They are more likely to be male than female. They do not necessarily come from a disadvantaged background. They make friends easily, even though they can be, when they feel like it, hostile, aggressive and impulsive. They feel entitled to abuse someone, claiming they are provoked.

Veenstra, therefore, is studying people who are high in sociopathic traits.

Seeking affection?

So let’s go back to the most recent study of schoolyard bullying by Veenstra et. al. In the beginning of it, he lays out a “theoretical elaboration” of the background for his study:

When studying interactions among children, what goals should be considered? Status and affection goals have frequently been identified as important for all human beings. Although we do not measure these goals directly, we have good evidence for their importance. Pendell (2002) has reviewed much literature that shows affection to be a universal need. The evolutionary and developmental importance of affection has also been shown. Status has also been established as a universal goal, and the importance of this goal for bullying has recently been directly assessed. Both goals are prominent in childhood and preadolescence as well. Thus, it seems to be a safe assumption that bullies, like other human beings, want to realize status and affection. (Citations omitted.)

This assumption is wrong. Bullies are, most likely, high in sociopathic traits. Sociopaths do not feel empathy for other human beings. They are not capable of love. They don’t want affection; they want narcissistic supply.

This study, however, concluded that bullies chose their victims in order to minimize the loss of affection from other members of their peer group. How did the researchers come to this conclusion? The children filled out self-report surveys in their school class. They were asked to name whom among their classmates were their friends, and whom they disliked. They were asked, “Who do you bully?” and “By whom are you bullied?” Based on the answers from all the participating children in the class, the researchers figured out which children were popular, which were bullies and which were victims, and who was friends with whom.

From this, the researchers determined that the bullies generally picked on the unpopular kids in the class. They wrote:

We predicted that bullies focus strategically on those potential same-gender victims who were rejected by and had low acceptance from same-gender classmates. For potential other-gender victims we hypothesized that children would focus on those who were rejected by the bullies’ same gender classmates. We found that victims of male bullies were indeed rejected by boys only and that male bullies were never low on acceptance. Thus, as expected, boys seem to choose their victims so as to minimize loss of affection.

I don’t know how these researchers made the leap from bullies picking low-status targets to bullies not wanting to lose the affection of their friends. I couldn’t find anyplace in the paper that described the researchers actually asking the bullies how they chose victims. If they had asked, I’m sure the answer would have been this: Unpopular kids were easy targets.

Clueless experts

These researchers are studying bullies. Bullying is a good indication of sociopathy. But the researchers are absolutely clueless about the nature of sociopaths.

Sociopaths do not want affection. They want power, control and sex. I hope these child bullies weren’t demanding sex from their victims, but they were certainly in pursuit of power and control.

If the experts on bullying don’t get it, no wonder the regular people of the world are confused about sociopaths.

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44 Comments on "Even experts on bullying are clueless about sociopaths"

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Excellent article. As someone who has been bullied both at school and in the adult workplace many times I would say that in my experience the more popular with peers you are the more likely you are to be bullied. Sure I’ve seen the unpopular ‘nerdy’ type kids and adults being bullied but they are the minority of targets. The majority of targets tend to be popular, attractive, socially skilled and competent at school and work. I was bullied not because I was unpopular (I had lots of friends of both sexes and hung out in a big group of us at school) but because I was popular, pretty and got good grades. My first bully when we were age 8, as she dragged me outside the school gate to attack me, slapped me across the face and said angrily ‘Don’t you take my friends off me’ I was the new girl at school and had clearly been getting on with my new classmates a little too much for her liking. She’s not much different as an adult I have to say, seems quite a miserable person actually….
That hasn’t changed much as an adult. Usually what has kicked off bullying from other women for me in the workplace has been one or several of: me visibly getting on very well with same sex colleagues, showing intelligence and competence at the job, getting superiors recognition, a male colleague giving the impression to the bully (however vague) that he thnks I’m attractive.
Basically bullies want narcissistic supply and perceive only one position at the top of the social hierarchy which of course has to belong to them. Those of us who are sane and socially healthy know that co-operation is key, civilised society need not be hierarchical in that way and power is best shared. Bullies, however, need all eyes on them all of the time. Targets like myself who genuinely get on with others and are far from low social status in our majority, take those eyes away from them and they can’t bear it.
I’ve found it only takes one bully by the way – how successful they are in isolating and attacking the target depends on the people around -colleagues etc. If they are weak and insecure themselves, the bully gives them a platform upon whch they can air their petty resentments, using the target as a punch bag to save them from having to look in the mirror at the real problem…and so mobbing starts. If they are not so weak, they will not join in with the bully and the bully will flounder. It’s a question of social dynamics. I’ve seen both in action, both as a target and as a bystander.
It’s a horrible thing and the reason why I haven’t worked a proper job for while. There’s only so much abuse from others one person can stand.
I’m still tryng to figure out how to deal with relational aggression from other women, it’s so subtle, so difficult to confront and so very common. That’s my lifes work lol!
Take it easy xxx

Silvermoon I just read your first two lines – you’ve experienced the same social dynamic as I have, which I talk about in the second to last paragraph of my post. It’s true it only usually takes one and it really does depend on the people around how far it goes. Crazy isn’t it! xx

Oxdrover wrote “I was the victim of severe bullying by a girl in 2nd grade (my jaw was broken) and have no way to know if she grew up to be a P or not, but she was darned sure aggressive & she didn’t seem to want any affection from me at least.”
My God Oxy how awful and only 2nd grade too. Makes me shudder to think how much danger I might have been in with my own 4th grade bully. You just don’t think 5 and 6 year olds are capable of breaking another kids jaw, so frightening that it happened to you =O xxx
I wanted to concur completely with your quote above – every female workplace bully I have known as an adult has been the same way. No matter how nice I was to them in my attempts to ‘improve the relationship’ I was rebuffed time and time again. They didn’t want to know me and would give me the cold shoulder. The one I had in 4th grade is the same way towards me as an adult, ignoring me and rebuffing any attempt I’ve made to get on with her. I’m older and wiser now so after a few attempts to ‘connect’ with her in a positive way when we first got back in touch, I’ve just begun to ignore her!
Very sad as all my bullies and I, when I look back, have tended to have alot in common in terms of interests, abilities etc. This is very telling as to why they bullied me – I represented competition to them – and very damning of the scientists theories that targets are of low status.
Namaste xx

Dear Genevieve,

The worst thing about the bullying episode with me was it went on for months and I felt ashamed of it (me,, feeling guilty like somehow I had caused it) the jaw breaking incidence, she hit me with one of the old style HEAVY glass coke bottles, made my teacher notice the wound, so I had to “tell”—but afterwards, I was told it really wasn’t her fault because she was the youngest of 22 kids in one family (really!) and very poor and since she got bullied at home I had to forgive her and Be nice to her. My own pain, fear, etc. was IGNORED and INVALIDATED–i.e. I WAS PUNISHED FOR HER MISDEEDS. Really, I am not sure why she did it, maybe because she was bullied at home, but in any case, MY FEELINGS WERE VALID, my pain was valid—and it was okay for me not to like her any more. It was only 50+ years later that I realized what my real feelings about that episode were.

I guess my teacher and my parents were sincerely TRYING their best to teach me not to be bitter or unduly angry at the girl, but at the same time, MY feelings were INVALIDATED and, whether or not they realized it, they probably did me more damage than the girl did.

Most “adult” bullying is more subtle than the coke bottle to the jaw type, and is more in line with emotional abuse and passive-aggressive behavior I think, but no less BULLYING. Back stabbing, etc. I’m glad I’m out of the work force now and don’t have to deal with it any more.

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