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Do you have bullies working the crowd?

A paper published in the journal Aggression and Violent Behavior argues that bullying arises from a group process. It is not just about individuals; bully and victim.

Psychologists Claire Garandeau and Antonius Cillessen at the Universite Rene Descartes in Paris and University of Connecticut in the US, argue that most students or work colleagues are aware when bullying takes place and are even present when it happens. In fact, one recent study confirms that bullying is more likely to continue if peer bystanders are present. And they say that a bully is much less likely to attack someone who enjoys social support in the peer group.

The issue then becomes not which individuals are most likely to end up victims or bullies, but what kind of groups tend to promote bullying within them. This paper focuses on some specific group mechanisms such as diffusion of responsibility - when the presence of many bystanders makes each individual feel less accountable for the victimisation they are witnessing.

While physical aggression might be easier to observe, bullying in schools and the work place is often more subtle. The two authors characterise this as indirect aggression: gossiping, trying to get others to dislike someone, and becoming friends with someone as a form of revenge towards someone else.

Previous studies show that girls of various ages use significantly more indirect aggression than boys. Girls have also been found to be more "relationally aggressive" than boys. Spreading lies or "stealing" friends are aggressive acts that are much more difficult to clearly identify and decry. One study of school pupils revealed that almost one in 10 victims of such indirect attacks could not actually identify the instigator.

This paper establishes that much bullying at school and in the workplace is characterised by the aggressor concealing the intention to hurt the victim, but relying on manipulating a wider group to achieve their ends. What conclusions can be drawn? Perhaps that the only effective way to stop bullying is to build group solidarity in the form of deeper relationships so they cannot be turned against a victim. In other words, the establishment of more profound friendships at work and at school.

Dr Raj Persaud is consultant psychiatrist at the Maudsley Hospital in south London and Gresham professor for public understanding of psychiatry. His new book, Simply Irresistible: the psychology of seduction - how to catch and keep your perfect partner, is available from Bantam Press, pound;12.99. Email: rajpersaud@tes.co.uk

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