Do Bullies Feel Your Pain?

By Kimberly van der Elst, Na'amah Razon, Janelle Caponigro | February 3, 2011 | 4 comments

Summaries of new research on empathy among bullies, dads' effects on mental health, and a cause of insomnia.

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Do Bullies have Empathy?

"Bullying and Empathy: A Short-Term Longitudinal Investigation"

Stavrinides, P., Georgiou, S., Theofanous, V., Educational Psychology, Vol. 30 (7), December 2010, 793-802.

Common sense suggests that bullies have low empathy. This study backs up that assumption—sort of. The authors found that among 205 sixth graders in Cyprus, bullies did show lower levels of “affective empathy,” which refers to the ability to experience others’ feelings as though they were your own. However, they didn’t have lower levels of “cognitive empathy,” defined as the ability to understand how another person feels but not necessarily feel that yourself.

The authors speculate that many bullies objectively know very well how their victims feel, but lack the affective empathy that would actually deter them from attacking others. However, they suggest that having high cognitive empathy may be the link to helping children learn to increase their affective empathy, and that their study “shows the necessity” for emotional education in schools as a means to reduce bullying and other aggressive behavior. —Kimberly van der Elst

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Dads Matter, Too

"Perceptions of Childhood Relationships with Mother and Father: Daily Emotional and Stressor Experiences in Adulthood "

Mallers, M.H.; Charles, S.T.; Neupert, S.D.; Almeida, D.M. Developmental Psychology, Vol. 46 (6), November 2010, 1651-1661.

Research has shown that the amount of nurturance, support, and affection a mother gives her child affects that child’s overall mental health as an adult. This study builds on that research by bringing dads into the equation. Adults rated the quality of their relationship with their mother and father during childhood. They also reported their levels of psychological distress (e.g., anxiety, tension, restlessness) over eight consecutive days.

Consistent with previous findings, the authors found that higher quality mother-child relationships were related to lower levels of psychological distress. They also found that men, though not women, who reported having good relationships with their fathers as children were less likely to experience emotional distress in response to everyday stressors; men who had had worse relationships with their dads showed higher levels of distress. These findings suggest that relationships with mothers and fathers make an important impact on children’s emotional and psychological development. —Janelle Caponigro

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Losing Sleep Over Regrets

"The Aftermath of Rash Action: Sleep-Interfering Counterfactual Thoughts and Emotions "

Schmidt, R.E.; Van der Linden, M. Emotion. Vol. 9 (4), August 2009, 549–553.

Researchers at the University of Geneva have concluded that rash behavior and “counterfactual thinking”—which means feeling emotions such as guilt, shame, and regret—contribute to insomnia. The study examined a group of 101 undergraduate students who were asked to complete questionnaires assessing their impulsive behavior, counterfactual thinking, and insomnia. The study found that the frequency of rash, impulsive behavior is associated with guilt, shame, and regret, and with more severe insomnia. —Na’amah Razon

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I am interested in the connection between kindness and bulling.  Is an empathetic or kind child less likely to be a bully and more resilient to being bullied?  Is there more research on this topic?

Candace | 8:52 am, February 17, 2011 | Link


Response to Candace’s question: As one of the authors of this study I can share with you what we suspect: Yes, to both questions, at least that’s what one might conclude from our study: kids who scored high on empathy were less likely to be involved in bullying others three months later. Its like what you said, empathy may operate as a resilience trait/mechanism. Indeed though, more research is needed to understand better the mechanisms involved.

Panayiotis Stavrinides | 8:58 am, February 21, 2011 | Link


Thank you so much for your answer.  Do you know of other research that would add to this regarding empathy/bullying?

Candace | 11:34 am, February 22, 2011 | Link


I like the work Darrick Jolliffe and David Farrington. You will find a number of their papers in most of the academic research engines.

Panayiotis Stavrinides | 12:34 am, February 23, 2011 | Link

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