The Psychology Behind Bullying

Medically reviewed by Corey Pitts, MA, LCMHC, LCAS, CCS
Updated May 1, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include abuse which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Many children and young people experience bullying at some point in their lives. Even if they aren’t the direct target of it, they may witness bullying behavior at schools, in the workplace, or even at home. Anyone can become a bully, and the reasons for bullying vary widely. Understanding the psychology of most bullies can help parents and other adults make sense of why someone might choose to commit crimes of bullying.

There is no justification for bullying. However, understanding this harmful behavior may help victims of the bully cope with it more effectively, realizing that it has much more to do with the bully’s own unresolved personal issues and social skills than anything they might have done to cause it.

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What drives bullies?

In society, there are a variety of factors that drive bullies. Despite the toxicity of this behavior, understanding its psychology is key to making further strides against bullying. People usually become bullies for a reason, regardless of how terrible their behavior might be. Below are some of the potential root causes of bullying.

Perceived threats

Why do bullies bully? In many cases, when bullying occurs, bullies perceive their target as a threat. The victim of bullying may be "different" or otherwise unique in a way that stands out to the bully. Bullies often pick on individuals whom they view as a threat, whether this is a threat to their social dominance, ego, or self-esteem.

Whether or not someone actually poses some type of threat by being "different" can vary. Regardless, the actions of bullies are not justified. In many cases, bullies are only subconsciously aware that they're feeling threatened by someone else.

Desire for power

We live in a world where an emphasis is placed on power and getting as much of it as possible. Unfortunately, there are many individuals who internalize this and believe that using aggressive behavior to knock other people down is the most effective way to build themselves up. This is especially common when students are targeted in school bullying or in various social circles involving peers.

Sometimes, this goes back to bullies feeling threatened by the individuals whom they target with their bad behavior, like name calling or social exclusion. In other cases, bullies wish to instill fear in others as a means to gain power; they don't care about the target of their behavior being a casualty of their quest for power and control.

Revenge

One of the less commonly discussed motivations of bullies is revenge. Research shows that there are certain times when bullies genuinely believe that their target wronged them (or someone they care about) at one point or another. Whether or not this belief is accurate depends on the precise nature of the circumstances; however, bullying prevention efforts emphasize that bullying is never the answer.

If someone did, in fact, do wrong, it's up to the person wronged to appropriately report the matter to the proper authority figures or confront the person rather than become a bully themselves. Vigilante justice and revenge quests have an endless propensity to go wrong and can make matters worse for everyone involved.

In some cases, bullies target innocent kids or other children because the bully was a victim of abuse or violence in the past. This could be motivated by revenge or an attempt to take back the power that was once stolen from them. Again, this does not excuse the behavior of hurting someone else but is merely an attempt to understand where this behavior could be coming from.

Cowardice

The online world and social media have many upsides. But, besides inattentional blindness, too much focus on social media also opened the door to cyberbullying. As such, there's become a new phenomenon of people hiding behind phony accounts to target someone else online. Sometimes, these bullies personally know their targets. Sometimes they don't. Many cyberbullies have personal issues happening in their lives, hence their desire to target other people as they conceal their own identities. 

Not all cyberbullies are hidden; there are certain perpetrators of online hate who have no problem using their name and image, but many cyberbullies do hide behind their screens and fake social media accounts.

It is often easier to attack someone when they are not in your immediate presence, and many cyberbullies get feelings of pleasure when other people "like" or pay attention to their attacks on others.

Sadism

Pure sadism is certainly a factor with certain bullies and indicates a more pathological or even sociopathic drive behind their actions. There are certain people who merely enjoy being able to put down other individuals. We see this in abusive relationships and in criminals who go on to target individuals who fit a certain mold. 

When sadism is the strongest factor behind a bully's actions, they are likelier to be much more dangerous than bullies driven by other factors because they do not have a conscience or feelings of remorse.

Bullies and unresolved past trauma

At first glance, perpetrators may seem powerful, dominant, and in control. After closer examination, there are many cases in which bullies have unresolved trauma from their pasts. 

When personal issues aren't dealt with in the appropriate manner, they do not go away, regardless of how badly people want them to. In many cases, they lay in wait, beneath the surface, getting worse and worse. 

Eventually, unresolved trauma can no longer be contained and begins to manifest in ugly ways. Bullying others is one of many horrific ways in which unresolved trauma can manifest.

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Unfortunately, there are times when former survivors of bullying go on to become bullies themselves. They may still be struggling with what happened to them in the past. In other cases, these people may believe that bullying other individuals is the only way to personally shield themselves from present-day bullies. 

This flawed way of thinking often only continues the toxic, vicious cycle of bullying. The impacts of bullying are very well-documented; going on to become a bully oneself is another impact to be aware of.

The importance of stopping bullies

Understanding the psychological factors and urges behind bullies is paramount to stopping them. In many cases, the onus is placed on the targets of bullies. These people are often told to report the incident or otherwise take action to prevent themselves from being further targeted. However, placing the onus on the perpetrators of toxic behavior is imperative, as it holds them accountable for their behavior.

Not rewarding bad behavior

The rise of anti-bullying campaigns and platforms may create the illusion that bullies are never rewarded for their bad behavior. Unfortunately, this simply isn't true. There are many cases in which bullies are viewed as more powerful and dominant when they're putting others down.

Turning a blind eye to the actions of bullies indirectly rewards the behavior. Anything which does not stop bullying inherently rewards it, regardless of how subtle it may be. Sometimes, people ignore bullies because they don't want to be bullied, but this mindset is problematic. It shows indifference toward those who are currently being targeted and does not guarantee that bullies will not turn on others one day.

True strength and power do not rely upon putting others down. Someone who is truly strong and powerful can shine and elevate without having to bully others.

The promotion of mental health and wellness

Understanding the psychological factors behind a bully's bad behavior is certainly impactful. However, promoting mental health and anti-bullying programs is another great way of putting an end to bullying. This can help survivors, bystanders, bullies, and potential bullies of any age alike. People who have witnessed or been subjected to bullying need to heal just as much as individuals who inflict pain and harm upon others.

Bullying is not healthy. No matter how rich, successful, popular, or otherwise well-off a bully may appear to be, the intentional mistreatment of just anyone signifies a problem. Likewise, being targeted by a bully does not mean that someone is weak.

Despite the rise of attention that bullying has received over the past decade, there are still certain undertones that suggest only weak people are bullied. Once again, this type of mindset places the onus and blame on individuals who are targeted, as opposed to those doing the bullying. Role play can be an effective strategy to help people understand the impact of bullying and develop empathy.

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Are you being bullied? Is it affecting your mental well-being?

Online therapy with BetterHelp

So often, people are led to believe that attempting to cope with their problems by themselves is a show of strength. The reality is that everyone will, at some point, need help. Understanding that you don't have to face every obstacle by yourself is part of being human. You are not weak because you need support. 

Signing up for online therapy with BetterHelp is one of the most efficient ways to get professional guidance that can change your life. Talking about bullying can be a sensitive topic, but online therapy allows you to discuss your experience at home. We provide a variety of bullying quotes that can offer comfort and guidance as you embark on the journey toward healing.

The efficacy of online therapy

Online therapy can be just as effective as traditional face-to-face therapy for treating various mental health conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety. Those exposed to severe cases of bullying can develop PTSD as a result, making it hard to function from day to day. 

One study found that internet-based therapy for PTSD reduced symptoms of distress and proved to be a viable treatment alternative. Researchers also found that a “stable and positive online therapeutic relationship can be established through the Internet” and grow throughout the treatment process.

Counselor reviews

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“Working with Contrina is so helpful and she has been so understanding. I’m so glad I turned to her to help me with a problem that has been years in the making. She offers me the outside perspective I need to break out of a cycle of hurt and anger that is affecting me deeply. She is wise, authentic, relatable and unfailingly kind. She has challenged me and pushed my thinking. I’m grateful to work with her in such a unique and convenient way.” Read more about Contrina Wilcox.

Takeaway

Bullying can take a toll on your physical and mental health. This is true if you’re experiencing it yourself or watching someone you care for go through it.

Often school aged bullies target their peers, other children and young people, for a variety of reasons, perhaps they feel a social exclusion, are acting as a bully as a stress response, or may have other mental health challenges such as bipolar disorder.

Young children who are developing social skills may benefit from appropriate and healthy social interaction. You may find a therapist to learn more about child development and learn effective social skills.

Whether your issues are related to bullying or another matter entirely, help is available to those who are willing to ask for it. Online therapy can be a powerful resource as you work through the situation at hand and move forward in a healthy manner.
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