"Bullies have low self esteem" -The theory that came from nowhere & yet became social science dogma

In another thread poster Manwich provided a link to an interesting paperthat discussed the development of theories of why people bully. On it’s face the classic, now more of less debunked, notion that bullies bullied not out of the simple enjoyment of terrorizing and dominating their weaker peers, but rather out of a low sense of self esteem.

This is, on it’s face, common-sensically absurd as most anyone who has been bullied can attest to, bullies have tons of esteem, but it was psychological and social dogma for some time that this silly notion was received wisdom.

In reading the article the fascinating thing is that the author can find NO specific reference or key paper that makes this claim. It’s almost like it’s a Pinocchio theory in that it was able to become real by people wishing it were so.

Dateline did a story on this a few years ago. The gave self-esteem tests to a number of prison inmates. The majority score higher than the general population.
They also did some testing with preschooler, rewarding them for minor achievements. The kids scored progressively poorer and expected greater rewards as the tests continued.

I guess I will continue to join in on our continuing series on bullying.:wink:
I agree with the OP that it is simplistic to say that bullies have “low self esteeme”. It sounds like the sort of platitudes that weakling intellectual types spout about people like professional athletes or Navy SEALS that they are “overcompensating” for some shit or other.

The article seems to support what I’ve always suspected. That bullies and other Gung ho aggressive types have an unrealistically high view of self. They also have a sort of intellectual inflexibility that prevents any sort of nuanced view of the world. So anything that threatens that inflated view of self or their rigid world view is met with aggression.

IOW bullies are the center of their world and they will beat anyone who tries to prove otherwise. It’s a behavior you see with stupid or simpleminded people in general. They are incapable of reasonable debate or discussion so they will shout down or otherwise disrupt whatever it is they disagree with.

msmith537, clearly you are not a weakling intellectual you would know that we rarely if ever spout out about Navy SEALs and pro athletes. Same planet, different worlds…

Why will bullies beat anyone who tries to prove they are not the center of the world? In my opinion, because the bully perceives a lack of due respect, as it were, and will beat an antagonist to enforce his will. Or, they beat someone for the benefit of a third party audience. “Respect” is an important word in violent subcultures like street gangs and outlaw bikers; for them, failure to show them the respect they feel they deserve is reason enough to start hitting. So in my opinion it’s in the ballpark of self esteem, but what’s really more important to the bully** how s/he is perceived by others**. High achieving, highly self esteeming types who don’t obsess with others’ perception of them don’t become bullies.

I can well imagine the false correlation of bullying and low self esteem arising in the popular mind out of this.

People always say someone’s “overcompensating” if he has certain things. A guy with guns is, naturally, overcompensating for his tiny penis. Likewise for a man who has a sports car, a muscle car or a large truck. Bodybuilders and weightlifters, of course, also have tiny dicks (and are also overcompensating for the fact that they’re homosexual by trying to be super-manly.) This is how a lot of people, including people here, seem to operate.

I think they’re probably just jealous, and this “overcompensation” shtick is their way of feeling smugly superior.

Apparently it was just a behavioural truism.

According to Handbook of Peer Interactions, Relationships, and Groups by Kenneth H. Rubin, William M. Bukowski, Brett Paul Laursen:

Given the abundance of research on the correlates and predictors of childhood and adolescent aggression long before bullying entered the research agenda, it was quite natural to apply the findings on aggressive behaviour to the bullying type of aggression. For a long time, researchers and practitioners regarded bullies as individuals who lack social skills and have low self-esteem, deficencies in social information processing, low social standing in the peer group, and other adjustment problems. Although many of these factors seem to be associated with aggression in general, or with reactive aggression, there is little empirical support for their being related to bullying specifically.

This began to change after Dan Olweus published Aggression in the schools: Bullies and whipping boys in 1973 and 1978.

But these ring true for me in the case of bigger kids picking on smaller ones. We’ve all heard the protest, “Pick on someone your own size!” If a bully does that, then there’s a good chance he’s not bullying, but issuing an appropriate challenge or rightly defending himself.

It seems to me that the statement “bullies have low self esteem” is simply an excuse given to victims of bullies in a feeble attempt to try to make the victim feel better. I have no cites for this, however.

Which is so weird to me, because that message, to me, always said, “I’m going to lavish my sympathy on the bully, and ignore you, who are actually victimized.” I would greatly have preferred, “Yes, now that you mention it, he is a big, macho asshole with an exaggerated sense of self-worth.”

I’d take that “intellectual inflexibility” a step further. Bullies are basically a very low type authoritarian personality: the type that respects only physical force. No situation can be meaningfully resolved without beating ass, and unless you too can beat ass, they have no use for you.

Ironically, that’s pretty much how international politics operated for a few thousand years.

Now how does this apply to female, non-physical bullies?

If we re-word it slightly to “Bullies generally have a badly developed or unhealthy sense of self-esteem”, then it’s true with research. An exaggerated sense of self-worth that is not rooted in the general acknowledgement of yourself as worthy person, or recognition of your talents, and that can’t stand any perceived challenge, is not a natural self-worth of a healthy developed person.

And I don’t think it’s so that people can feel sympathetic about bullies. I think it was meant as a warning to parents and educators: if we don’t teach children proper, real self-esteem, we might not get only docile, fearful, obedient children, but also out-of-control bullies. Sadly, many educators misunderstood this and applied general insinicere praise, which did more harm than good. It takes a lot of work and time and good teachers to build self-esteem; false praise is usually seen through as fake by the children and leads to more self-esteem problems (either exaggerated “I’m wonderful because adults tell me so” or more of the depresseive “I really must be worthless that even smart adults can’t point out my real achievments, and only praise me for idiotically easy stuff anybody could do”)

It’s also an important understanding in how to treat bullies in juvenile prisons and similar. I just watched a discussion on teenage bullies of the type who indiscrimantly beat up people, and one of the guests was a psych guy who worked with these kids in juvenile prison in therapy. He said that while they get a few minutes in the hot chair, where they are made aware off that what they do is wrong, they then spend a lot of time building their self-esteem for other things besides beating people up. They get diverse things like speech training, dance class or whatever, not because we want to pamper them, but because they need to learn that they can do other things and have other talents besides beating.

Because, as the psych guy said, when these kids from disadvantaged backgrounds grow up, they see in school that they aren’t good intellectually, that they aren’t good at sports, they don’t see any other talents, so the only way they perceive themselves is as “being good at beating people up”, so that’s what they do.

In my experience, bullies tend to have been bullied by someone else (usually their dad), and are acting out a mix of frustration that they can’t stand up to their own abuser and behaving like their role models have shown them it’s normal to behave (a role model is not necessarily a positive influence, by the way-- it’s just someone you model your behavior after, usually unconsciously.) If you want to pick nits, this might not be exactly low self-esteem, but I’ve always known what people meant when they say “bullies have low self-esteem,” and I don’t disagree with it.

I disagree, many of the bullies I’ve known have come from mostly discipline free home environments where the parent(s) (often a single mother) dotes on them.

You disagree with my experience? Seems like I would’ve noticed you following me around by now.

You need a coaster for that drink.


Or male, non-physical bullies; I know some of these, too. Being where they aren’t is generally the best policy.

I also disagree with your experience.:smiley:

Well, I disagree with the hypothesis your experience has produced. I believe bullies are somehow instilled with a greater sense of ambition and they discovery that they can fulfill their ambitions through aggressive behavior. It could simply be a matter of deciding “I want that” and they learn that because of their superior size or strength, they rarely have trouble just going up and taking it.

It seems to me that people who have been bullied all their life tend to become a pathetic shell of a person or angry and resentful at all forms of power or authority, not a bully.