Why Do People Bully?

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Mitt Romney shown in his 1965 senior class photo from Cranbrook Schools.
Cranbrook Schools

THE GIST

- Contrary to popular belief, bullies often have high self-esteem.

- Bullies can lose their moral compass when driven by their peers.

Gov. Mitt Romney has found himself on the defensive responding to allegations that as a teenager he harassed two prep school classmates who later came out as gay.

Some have questioned the timing of a report in the online version of the Washington Post, since it was published one day after President Obama personally endorsed gay marriage.

Others say the story, which referenced four named sources (former classmates of Romney), paints a disturbing portrait of the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, at least during his teenage years.

Either way, the story brings up the ever-present question -- why do people bully?

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"It provides these kids with a sense of power," said Catherine Bradshaw, a developmental psychologist who studies bullying at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore. "It's a way of pulling your core group closer and putting someone else out of it."

"The simple reason is it shows that they have power over others," agreed Marlene Snyder, Development Director for the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program in the United States, based in Clemson, S.C. "The reason that they do it repeatedly is that they are getting away with it. Nobody is calling them on their bad behavior. When they aren't called on it they think, 'Well, it must be O.K.'"

This power brings popularity and high social status for bullies, Bradshaw said. "But they're also perceived as disliked."

Evidence has shown that bullies often suffer from social and emotional problems, she added. At the same time, "one of the big myths is that bullies bully because they feel bad about themselves," Snyder said. "The research consistently shows that they have average or above average self-esteem."

"For the longest time we thought for sure that these ringleader bullies were socially rejected, that there was no way that you could establish dominance and control by humiliating other kids or tormenting them," said bullying expert Dorothy Espelage, a psychologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "But now we've shown that there is a peer socialization process -- that bullies tend to have more friends."