Mobbing, Bullying, and Peer Rejection

Beate Schuster, PhD

Beate Schuster, PhDOne of the most devastating experiences is to be the object of aggression by members of one's own social group. This phenomenon seems to occur across different species. Collective attacks directed against an individual of the same species (rather than a predator) are called mobbing in the biological literature. This term was extended to humans by Konrad Lorenz, in his influential work on aggression, to delineate collective attacks against an outsider.

This phenomenon has subsequently been studied in humans under different labels by different researhcers. For example, Scandinavian researcher Dan Olweus described how school children may repeatedly exclude, tease, and even physically attack a victim. Olweus termed this kind of social behavior bullying. His pioneering work has stimulated research efforts in Europe, and, lately, in Australia and North America. The same phenomenon has also been studied in an entirely different context: among adults at the worksite. For some years, this has been a topic of increasing interest to Scandinavian and German organizational psychologists who have called it mobbing.

Although bullying and mobbing appear to be closely related, the relevant literatures have rarely referred to each other. Moreover, both literatures have been largely isolated from mainstream social, developmental, and personality psychological theorizing. In my own work, I have been attempting to integrate these different literatures with each other and with mainstream psychological theories and findings in order to gain a more complete understanding of peer aggression. Here, I will briefly outline what we already know about bullying and mobbing from the separate literatures, and then I will mention important questions that remain to be answered by social psychological theory and application.

Definition and Prevalence

Estimates of the prevalence of bullying and mobbing have varied considerably in the literature. For example, some studies (e.g., by Hoover) have suggested incidence rates of 90%. The rates are lower when the standard definition of bullying and mobbing is followed. This definition specifies a variety of parameters including (a) duration of at least 6 months, (b) repetition of at least once a week, and (c) imbalance in the strength of those involved (target is unable to defend him or herself). When these criteria are met, about 5% of children are identified as victims of bullying via self-report (3% via teacher report), and about 3.5% of adults are identified as victims of mobbing at the worksite via self-report. About half of the cases of bullying or mobbing are committed by one person, and the other half involve a group of people (see research by Whitney & Smith and by Leymann).

These converging prevalence rates of bullying and mobbing support the idea that the phenomena are related. There are also converging sex effects (see Olweus & Leymann). Both females and males are equally likely to be victims, but the attackers vary. Males are attacked predominantly by males, whereas females may be attacked by females, males, or mixed male/female groups. Moreover, male victims experience more direct forms of bullying/mobbing such as hitting (in children) or impeding the working conditions (in adults), whereas females experience more indirect forms such as being ridiculed or victimized by rumors.

Contributing Factors

A glance at the literatures suggests that the research on bullying has focused on the actors involved (in particular, the bully), but neglected structural factors of the environment in which bullying takes place. In turn, organizational psychologsts have neglected the contribution of the individuals, but stessed the role of the work environment. Therefore, a primary goal of my work is to integrate the two separate perspectives into a more comprehensive approach to the general phenomenon of harassment in social groups.

The bully. In several studies, about 2-5% of children have been identified as bullies, either by peers, teachers, or self-report. Peers and teachers rate these children as physically stronger than average (e.g., Lagerspetz). Based on self-report, these children are not happy, dislike school, and experience problems at home (e.g., Rigby & Slee). Olweus's research has shown that these children are highly aggressive and may display a general conduct disorder. Later (at age 24 in follow-up studies), they are three to four times more likely than normal youngsters to be criminally convicted. Analogous studies on bullies at the worksite do not yet exist. However, the findings from the bullying research suggest that at the worksite, too, there might be one individual whose aggressive tendencies contribute to the development of a mobbing process. Also, functional equivalences to physical strength, such as verbal superiority, may play an important role in mobbing behavior.

The victim. Obviously, bullies do not attack randomly. Rather, they harass a certain subgroup. In children, these victims are characterized as unassertive, physically weak, and small. They have a low sense of self-worth, a high level of depression, and are perceived by peers and teachers as deviating from the norm in some respect (e.g., they are obese or hyperactive). Research on adult victims of mobbing has shown that deviations from the norm (e.g., being the only woman in a typically male-held job) and handicaps increase the risk of being mobbed. Thus, both literatures found a victim's physical or psychological weakness and deviations from the norm to be important factors.

The environment. Whereas research on bullying in children has focused on characteristics of the actors involved, research on mobbing in adults has concentrated on environmental factors such as management styles and stress at work. For instance, both laissez-faire and authoritarian leadership styles may contribute to mobbing. An analysis by Leymann focused on stressful work environments, which are characterized by unresolved conflicts in a group with no management intervention to resolve these conflicts.

Extending the Research To Include Personality, Social, and Developmental Approaches

Most bullying and mobbing research has thus far focused on the nature and extent of the phenomenon and has not developed elaborate and empirically well-founded theories. Those models that do exist are not embedded in more general theories of social, developmental, or personality psychology, In addition, the data are typically from case studies (mobbing) or are predominantly correlational in nature (bullying).

In my work, I am trying to extend the theoretical and empirical understanding of bullying and mobbing phenomena by framing them in terms of research on social status among peers. This work has a long tradition embedded in social-developmental and personality theories, and it uses sophisticated methods and more differentiated concepts, which may provide important insights into peer aggression. This work has rarely been related to the literature on bullying and has never been related to the literature on mobbing. Although there are some important definitional differences between peer rejection and bullying/mobbing (e.g., a rejected child may be able to defend him or herself against attacks and, thus, may ward off future attacks), they are similar in that victims in both cases are subject to negative attitudes from their peers. Empirically as well, they seem to be related: Perry and his colleagues found a correlation of .57 between being bullied and rejected.

Possible contribution of the social status literature. Peer rejection studies rely on a classical assessment method (sociometry) and use observational and experimental designs to determine which factors contribute to social status. In sociomentry, peers are asked with whom they would like to spend time and with whom they would not. Peer rejection is defined as occurring when few peers nominate a child as someone with whom they want to spend time, and many nominate the child as someone with whom they definitely do not want to spend time. Peer neglect, in contrast, is defined as occurring when a child receives neither positive nor negative nominations.

Observational, experimental, and quasiexperimental designs used in peer rejection studies examine what factors contribute to rejection. For instance, children's behavior when introduced to a group of children they do not know has shown (see Putallaz) that rejected children display specifiable inadequacies in their behavior. Unlike more successful peers, they do not determine the shared social rules and do not submit to them. Rather, they tend to direct attention away from the ongoing activity of the group and toward themselves.

Observations of rejected children in experimentally arranged groups reveal that children rejected at school quickly acquire this status in experimental groups and display behaviors that more successful peers avoid in the course of group sessions. For instance, they are more likely to require help without trying first and are not cooperative or social. These studies suggest some specific interventions that could ameliorate the prevalence of bullying and mobbing (e.g., social competency training).

Using social status approaches as a framework may further increase the theoretical orientation of research on mobbing and bullying. For example, to explain why deviating from the norm may increase rejection, the social status literature draws on classical social psychological (attribution) theory and personality theories.

Juvonen, for example, suggested that the social-psychological mechanism mediating deviation and rejection is described by attributional theories: Children are more likely to reject others who deviate from the norm when they perceive that this deviation is due to controllable causes residing within the deviator (e.g., obesity or hyperactivity). Others (e.g., Wright) have shown that it is not the personality of one child alone that determines peer status, but the constellation of personalities within a group: A child less aggressive than average experiences difficulties in a group of aggressive children, whereas an unagressive child does not experience such difficulties in a group of children who, too, are not aggressive, and vice versa. Such work, drawing on attribution theory, personality theory, and social interaction models may be useful in specifying how bullying and mobbing can be decreased.

Conclusions and Research Questions

A more comprehensive picture of harassment can be gained if mobbing researchers consider person variables and if bullying researchers take into account situation variables. The understanding of harassment may further profit from concepts and theories of the social status literature. For example, the mechanisms leading to the experience of being bullied, and the strategies for ending bullying, might not be the same for rejected and neglected children. At a theoretical level, the attributional analyses of reactions to deviations and social/personality psychological approaches to group composition may provide useful insights for understanding the basic role of deviations in bullying/mobbing.

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