An aggressor is not necessarily a bully—and the distinction matters

July 5, 2018 by Bert Gambini, University at Buffalo

Spotting a bully is more nuanced than it might seem, because there is a difference between general aggressive behavior and bullying. They are not the same thing, according to the findings of a new paper by a University at Buffalo psychologist who is among the country's leading authorities on aggression, bullying and peer victimization.

"It's important for us to realize this distinction, in part because every aggressive behavior we see is not bullying," says Jamie Ostrov, lead author of the forthcoming paper to be published in a special issue of the Journal of Child and Family Studies.

"Certainly are problematic in their own right and also deserve our attention, but recognizing the differences in the two behaviors means we can begin a discussion about whether we have to do something different with interventions related to general aggression."

Ostrov, who was a member of an expert panel at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Education that worked to determine a uniform definition of bullying, will also present the findings from his latest research at the International Society for Research on Aggression world meeting in Paris, France, on July 11. http://www.israsociety.com/world-meetings/upcoming/

"We're certainly excited to share these results with our colleagues around the world," says Ostrov. "Our work with the CDC and the Department of Education has had a national focus. Now we can take this work and present it globally."

Psychologists conceptualize bullying as a subtype of aggression.

Aggressive behaviors are meant to hurt or harm. Bullying is a repetitive behavior further characterized by a power imbalance between two parties, such as one child against a group or a bigger child against a smaller child, according to Ostrov, a professor in UB's psychology department.

The two studies detailed in Ostrov's paper come out of his work to develop that definition and empirically test whether general aggression is different from bullying .

"That's the fundamental question guiding this paper," he says. "The other component here is that we're focusing on early childhood. There have been researchers who examined similar questions in adolescence, but we wanted to see what happens in children between 3- and 5-years-old.

Bullying can be physical, involving hitting, kicking, pinching or taking things away from someone. There is also relational bullying or social exclusion, where kids might say, "You can't be my friend anymore" or "You can't come to my birthday party."

"Victimization is receiving; aggression is displaying; bullying adds the power imbalance and repetition," says Ostrov.

Using teacher reports for one study with 85 students and a second study that combined teacher reports and behavioral observations by a research staff on 105 students, Ostrov and his colleagues—Kimberly E. Kamper-DeMarco, a post doctoral associate at the UB Research Institute on Addictions; Sarah J. Blakely-McClure and Kristin J. Perry, both students in the UB clinical psychology Ph.D. program; and Lauren Mutignani, a Ph.D. student at the University of Arkansas—found relational aggression was associated with increases in relational victimization in both studies.

The results suggest that relational , not , was associated with increases in victimization.

"We have to keep this distinction in mind—it matters," he says. "It's also validating our overall definition of bullying. There is something distinctive about bullying."

Explore further: What makes kids aggressive later in life?

More information: Jamie M. Ostrov et al, Prospective Associations between Aggression/Bullying and Adjustment in Preschool: Is General Aggression Different from Bullying Behavior?, Journal of Child and Family Studies (2018). DOI: 10.1007/s10826-018-1055-y

Related Stories

What makes kids aggressive later in life?

July 22, 2015
A University at Buffalo developmental psychologist has received a $550,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study possible pathways that might lead young children toward different types of aggressive behavior ...

Bullying likely to result in aggressive responses by children with disabilities

October 3, 2016
Children with disabilities—particularly those with learning disabilities, emotional disabilities and autism spectrum disorders—often are victims of bullying. However, very little research exists about how children with ...

New research reveals friends are worse than enemies when it comes to bullying

November 15, 2017
Research into the effects of different types of bullying on young people's health, conducted by academics at the University of Hertfordshire, has shown bullying between friends to be the most damaging type.

Combination of face-to-face and online bullying may pack a powerful punch

April 30, 2016
Bullying and taunts that may have once stayed in the schoolyard increasingly spill over into text messages and social media. A new study shows that the combined effect of both face-to-face and cyber-bullying may have a powerful ...

Sibling bullying experiences affect perceptions of peer bullying in study

February 19, 2015
Sibling rivalry and aggression are part of growing up. It's fodder for sitcoms and family films, because anyone who has siblings most likely survived an occasional noogie or verbal lashing.

Recommended for you

Study finds mindfulness apps can improve mental health

November 15, 2018
A University of Otago study has found that using mindfulness meditation applications (apps) on phones is associated with improvements in people's mental health.

Social media is affecting the way we view our bodies—and not in a good way

November 15, 2018
Young women who actively engage with social media images of friends who they think are more attractive than themselves report feeling worse about their own appearance afterward, a York University study shows.

New research has revealed we are actually better at remembering names than faces

November 14, 2018
With the Christmas party season fast approaching, there will be plenty of opportunity to re-live the familiar, and excruciatingly-awkward, social situation of not being able to remember an acquaintance's name.

Older adults' abstract reasoning ability predicts depressive symptoms over time

November 14, 2018
Age-related declines in abstract reasoning ability predict increasing depressive symptoms in subsequent years, according to data from a longitudinal study of older adults in Scotland. The research is published in Psychological ...

The illusion of multitasking boosts performance

November 13, 2018
Our ability to do things well suffers when we try to complete several tasks at once, but a series of experiments suggests that merely believing that we're multitasking may boost our performance by making us more engaged in ...

Brain changes found in self-injuring teen girls

November 13, 2018
The brains of teenage girls who engage in serious forms of self-harm, including cutting, show features similar to those seen in adults with borderline personality disorder, a severe and hard-to-treat mental illness, a new ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.