Changing perspectives on bullying

At least 50 000 children and young people wake up every day in Norway with good reason to fear that they will be bullied on the way to and in school, in the neighbourhood and on the web.

Bullying. Photo: Photo Alto / Thierry Foulon.

Norwegian awareness of collective aggression by a group of children against a targeted child was given shape in 1969 by Peter-Paul Heinemann, a Swedish school medical officer.

He introduced the word “mobbing” for this phenomenon in an article for the Liberal Debatt journal (Heinemann, 1969), and wrote a book on the subject (Heinemann, 1972) based on observations in Swedish school playgrounds.

Heinemann borrowed “mobbing” as a term from Austrian ornithologist Konrad Lorenz, who first described aggressive flock behaviour among birds (Lorenz, 1968).

Such collective bullying was directed against an intruder or deviant, and Heinemann transferred the concept – and by and large the understanding of the mechanisms involved – to people.

He regarded mobbing as a group practice, although agreement now prevails both in Norway and internationally that it can also be carried out by an individual bully. 

Heinemann basically believed that this behaviour occurred when a peaceful group was disrupted, often by an outsider. The consequent collective irritation and aggression was turned against the “intruder” but, once the attack was over, the group returned to its original peaceful activity.

In his view, the bullies did not differ from other children, but their behaviour was arbitrary and reactive – in other words, the result of a provocation.

Heinemann’s article and book formed the basis for a long and extensive research tradition in Norway and elsewhere, and for practical measures.

More than 40 years later, we know that the Swede’s original and well-written reflections were largely erroneous. He was wrong both about the arbitrariness of roles and about mobbing as reactive aggression. Negative behaviour emerges from an interaction between people and environment, and this can result for some in a development loop which reinforces over time (Cicchetti & Cohen, 2006; Cicchetti & Toth, 2009). 

We know today that the “lottery” principle does not determine who bullies others, at least not to any great extent. Instead, the most prominent tormentors are pupils with a strong streak of aggression (Barker et al, 2008).

And Heinemann was also wrong about the basic mechanism – in other words, the type of aggression involved. Bullying is not primarily an aggressive reaction, but proactive (Dodge, Pepler & Rubin, 1991; Roland & Idsøe, 2001).

This means that, generally speaking, somebody who bullied fellow pupils last week will do it this week as well, and in the weeks to come. 

Such stability over time is clear for the most active tormentors, but less obvious for their hangers-on (Scholte, Engels, Overbeek, de Kemp & Haselager, 2007). 

These active bullies are more prone than other pupils to proactive aggression – the tendency to attack without being provoked.

A lot is also known about the children and young people at particular risk of being bullied – they are the anxious and lonely ones. These can also form vicious circles (Arseneault, Bowes & Shakoor, 2010; Roland, 2014).

Bullying can be defined as negative actions over time – by one or more people – against somebody who cannot defend themselves in the relevant circumstances (Olweus & Roland, 1983; Strohmeier and Noam, 2012).

In other words, bullying or mobbing represent ritualised assaults on somebody who cannot protect themselves.

But is the child’s personality the only significant factor? By no means. Nor is the day care centre, school or class attended by the child coincidental (Roland, 2014). Systematic behaviour is always created in an interaction – a transaction – between personalities and context.

And the context – the learning environment – is the most amenable to being influenced through prevention, exposure and measures (Olweus, 1993; Roland, 2014; Strohmeier & Noam, 2012).

In addition comes the important follow-up of the victim of the bullying, and perhaps also of tormentors (Arseneault et al, 2010).


Text: Professor Erling Roland
English translation: Rolf E Gooderham


Reference list

Arseneault, L., Bowes, L., & Shakoor, S. (2010). Bullying victimization in youths and mental health problems:‘Much ado about nothing’. Psychological Medicine, 40(5), 717729. doi: 10.1017/S0033291709991383

Barker, E. D., Boivin, M., Brendgen, M., Fontaine, N., Arseneault, L., Vitaro, F., . . . Tremblay, R. E. (2008). Predictive validity and early predictors of peer-victimization trajectories in preschool. Archives of General Psychiatry, 65(10), 1185. doi: 10.1001/archpsyc.65.10.1185

Cicchetti, D., & Cohen, D. J. (Eds.). (2006). Developmental psychopathology. Hoboken: NJ: Wiley.

Cicchetti, D., & Toth, S. L. (2009). The past achievements and future promises of developmental psychopathology: The coming of age of a discipline. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 50(1?2), 1625.

Dodge, K. A., Pepler, D., & Rubin, K. (1991). The structure and function of reactive and proactive aggression. The development and treatment of childhood aggression, 16(5), 201218.

Heinemann, P. P. (1969). Apartheid: Liberal Debatt Nº2.

Heinemann, P. P. (1972). Mobbning: gruppvåld bland barn och vuxna: Not Avail.

Lorenz, K. (1968). Haben Tiere ein subjektives Erleben?: Verlag die Arche.

Olweus, D. (1993). Bullying at school: What we know and what we can do: Wiley-Blackwell.

Olweus, D., & Roland, E. (1983). Mobbing: Bakgrunn og tiltak. Kirke-og undervisningsdepartemnetet.

Roland, E. (2014, 2.ed.). Mobbingens psykologi. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget. 

Roland, E., & Idsøe, T. (2001). Aggression and bullying. Aggressive behavior, 27(6), 446462. doi: 10.1002/ab.1029

Scholte, R. H., Engels, R. C., Overbeek, G., de Kemp, R. A., & Haselager, G. J. (2007). Stability in bullying and victimization and its association with social adjustment in childhood and adolescence. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 35(2), 217228. doi: 10.1007/s10802-006-9074-3

Strohmeier, D., & Noam, G. G. (2012). Bullying in schools: What is the problem, and how can educators solve it? New Directions for Youth Development, 2012(133), 713. doi: 10.1002/yd.20003