Recent studies suggest that 30 percent of 6th to 10th graders are either a bully or a target of emotional or physical bullying. But schools and parents are still trying to determine the best way to address this problem.
Conventional wisdom holds that bullies act out because they lack self-esteem, so effective anti-bullying programs should focus on boosting bullies’ egos.
Yet research suggests something else: Many bullies are actually narcissistic and have very inflated views of themselves; their aggression is used as a means to protect their big egos when threatened.
Building on that insight, a recent study, published in Psychological Science, has identified an effective strategy to deal with bullying which offers a subtle but important shift from conventional wisdom. Rather than trying to boost bullies’ egos and self-esteem, the researchers find, give them tools other than violence to protect their egos.
In the study, led by psychologist Sander Thomaes of Utrecht University in the Netherlands, 405 6th and 7th graders were put into two groups. In one group, the students were told to write for 15 minutes about their most cherished values and why these values were so important to them. The researchers hypothesized that this “self-affirmation” technique would protect narcissistic bullies’ egos from threats by focusing them on “the core traits that define them as a person.”
In the other group, a control, the students were told to write about their least important values and why these values may be important to other people.
The researchers also measured the students’ levels of narcissism, self-esteem, and aggression before and after the writing exercise, asking students to (anonymously) report incidents of playground bullying.
The researchers found that, when students didn’t participate in the self-affirmation exercise, higher narcissism was in fact associated with increased aggression. But when the students did participate in the exercise, this association disappeared: Narcissism was no longer associated with increased aggression, regardless of whether students had high or low self-esteem.
In other words, write Thomaes and his colleagues, the exercise “prevented narcissists from behaving aggressively when they experienced ego threat.” Being reminded of their core values served to protect bullies’ self-image, argue the researchers, so they didn’t need to get defensive and try to protect their cherished egos through violence.
The authors note that the developmental timing of the intervention might have been significant. This study involved kids at a time in their lives when they are trying to forge an identity of their own. Because the intervention makes the kids focus on their core values, it helps them define themselves in a positive way.
While all the effects of the exercise dissipated after three weeks, the researchers stress that this simple 15-minute self-affirmation exercise decreased narcissistic aggression for an entire school week—400 times the duration of the intervention itself.