Personality differences: Does being different from the group norm make you a target for bullying?

Summer is over, fall has begun, and classes have started a few weeks ago. So, we are all well into the learning process and — except if you are one of those responsible people — are already behind on all the things that we have to do. Since it is also fall, we at least have a good excuse to light a candle, and eat and drink everything pumpkin flavored while trying to catch up!

Even better, it is not just fall, it is October, so Halloween month has started. This means that, honestly, all I want to do is go to university in my witch costume, but sadly this is not the norm. Being different from the norm is not a bad thing, but it can lead to bullying.

Judging from my own high school experiences, the kids that are different from the rest are usually the ones that get bullied. Especially, if those differences are easily observable by others, such as clothes, appearances or behaviors that are different from the group norm.

In addition to visible differences, people also differ on things that are less directly observable, such as personality. Of course, we all have unique personalities and none of us are exactly like the group average, but the question arises whether being different from the group norm makes someone more of a target for being bullied than those who are similar to the rest. After all, reality (and science) has taught us that opposites do not attract.

Boele, Sijtsema, Klimstra, Denissen, and Meeus looked into this topic in their article: “Person group dissimilarity in Personality and Peer Victimization”. In their research, personality was measured in terms of the usual suspects in the Big Five (i.e., Openness to experience, Neuroticism, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Conscientiousness). In addition to these five traits, they also asked 1108 adolescents (spread over 54 classrooms) who participated in this study to report on three traits in the Dark triad (i.e., Machiavellianism, Narcissism and Psychopathy). Lastly, participants were asked whether they were being bullied (self-reported victimization) and whom they bullied (bully-reported victimization).

As will be seen throughout the results in this study, there is a discrepancy between self-reported and bully-reported victimization. As the authors of the study point out, self-reported victimization is more of a subjective experience than bully reported victimization, which is more based on a person’s status in the class. However, the amount of bully-reported victimization could be an underestimation, as not everyone might want to admit to this behavior.

The difference between these two sources for bullying was already visible when the personality package as a whole (i.e., traits rank ordered from highest to lowest score) was considered. That is, being different from the class norm in personality profile was only related to more bullying when it was bully-reported, while no relation was found for self-reported bullying.

Similarly, when individual traits were examined separately, bullies would report that they bullied others that were different from the class norm on Machiavellianism (i.e., bully-reported victimization). On the other hand, people felt that they were being bullied more when they differed from the norm on Openness or Extraversion (i.e., self-reported victimization).

Something I found surprising was that there were also results for similarity between person and group. For example, bully-reported victimization was high when class and person would both score low on Neuroticism, while the same relationship was true for self-reported bullying and Machiavellianism. In the opposite direction, self-reported bullying was high when both the class and the person would score high on Psychopathy.

The case of Agreeableness was very interesting. When both the person and class scored in the middle of the Agreeableness scale, both bully- and self-reported victimization were high. The authors offered an interesting explanation for this relationship. In classes where everyone scores relatively high on Agreeableness the amount of bullying is probably low and thus there is not much bullying to report in general. On the other side, in classes where everyone is very disagreeable, bullying might be a class norm of itself, which might lead to underreporting. Thus, the reporting of bullying was only high in the moderately agreeable classrooms. Psychopathy showed a similar pattern, but only for bully-reported victimization.

Finally, in some cases dissimilarity would only lead to more bullying for one of the directions. For instance, only people that scored higher than the class norm on Machiavellianism, and those scoring lower than the norm on Psychopathy would self-report that they were being bullied more. In the case of Neuroticism both self-report and bullies agreed that those who scored higher than the norm would be bullied more.

To summarize the results of this study, different combinations of similarity and dissimilarity can lead to increased risk of being seen as a victim by others or by yourself. This might help teachers find those adolescents who are at risk of being bullied. Especially traits such as Neuroticism that might lead to both reading ambiguous cues as more negative, and the tendency to prefer solitude which could make someone more vulnerable to bullying.

As this is the first study to look at personality and bullying in this way, specific results need to be replicated to make the results more reliable. Still, it is an important question to consider how we would apply knowledge such as this in practice. Could information like this help in the prevention of peer victimization?

If you want to read what the first author of the article had to say about the implications of this study, you can check out an interview with her on the blog of the European Journal of Personality. But, for me, the take-home message of this article was that in the field of individual differences it is important to also take into account that your subject is not the only one who is a unique individual. Especially in group processes, the norm might determine how personality or other variables influence individual results. Not only that, it might also affect where the line for behavior, such as bullying, is. Looking at this subject, if only the personality of the victim was taken into account, very different results would have emerged.

So there is a definite need for more research like this. Maybe in future research they can include tips on how to change the group norm so we can all wear witch costumes in public.

____________________

If you want to read the full article, it can be found on google scholar using this reference:

Boele, S., Sijtsema, J. J., Klimstra, T. A., Denissen, J. J., & Meeus, W. H. (2017). Person–Group Dissimilarity in Personality and Peer Victimization. European Journal of Personality, 31(3), 220-233.

Or this link.

If you (or your university) don’t have access to this article, but you still really want to read it you can always e-mail the authors to request a copy!

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