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.
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.
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.
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.