A weekly column on how the mind works
Traditionally, we've tended to think of bullying as a problem caused entirely by the bully. But recent research suggests it has quite a lot to do with the victims, who don't seem to be randomly selected, and who may continue to be bullied, even after they leave school. So helping victims identify what it is about them that attracts bullies might be the best strategy to combat the problem.
But is it possible that, if you were bullied at school, you set up a series of psychological processes that increase the likelihood that you will be bullied later in life? A team of psychologists led by Peter Smith at Goldsmiths College, University of London, has established just this. Their study, recently published in the British Journal of Psychology, investigated more than 5,000 adults from various workplaces around Britain and found that one of the key issues was how you tried to cope when bullied at school. The fact that researchers found consistent patterns of victimisation - even though substantially different ages were involved (on average 20 to 25 years apart) - suggests some continuity, perhaps at an individual psychological level.
But perhaps most astonishing were the high levels of school bullying recalled. About 50 per cent of respondents had been victims; about one in five recalled being a bully.
Research shows that the least effective coping strategies for bullied children include crying and fighting back. The most successful responses are to tell a teacher or a friend. This tallies with the theory that bullying tends to thrive in environments where bystanders collude by not intervening. The culture of an institution plays a vital role in encouraging or preventing the problem. The question, then, is not whether it is going on near you, but more are you interested in finding out, and would you do something about it if you saw it?
Previous studies have established that a host of individual characteristics predict who gets bullied at school. They include low self-esteem, disability, physical weakness, shyness, maternal overprotection, lack of friends (especially reliable and high-status friends), and social rejection in the peer group. One obvious theory is that you take these personal characteristics with you from school to work. Another theory is that being bullied at school produces profound personal consequences such as reduced self-esteem, anxiety and depression, and these continue into the adult years and act as risk factors.
A key psychological theory is that victims respond in a way that encourages the aggressor; in other words, the prey gives the perpetrator something they are looking for. This centres on the "response" of the victim. It's impossible to bully an inanimate object because you get no response you can feed off. The key is for the victim to work out what response the perpetrator is looking for, and ensure they don't get it.
Teachers can find themselves in a difficult position as they are rarely present when bullying starts, and parents often want them to act as policemen in ways that are not practicable. Their own experience of bullying as pupils may also influence their approach.
One effective strategy is to use pupils as your eyes and ears, so bullying is reported by more than one witness. Another key technique is to use classroom discussion - even role-play - to explore the issue, encouraging a preventive approach. But whatever you do, this latest research proves the importance of early intervention. Schools should centre on helping to change those characteristics that could, if unchecked, mean being bullied at school is the start of a long life journey of misery as a victim.
Dr Raj Persaud is a consultant psychiatrist at the Maudsley hospital and senior lecturer at the Institute of Psychiatry in London. He is a fellow of University College London, and author of From the Edge of the Couch published by Bantam Press, pound;12.99. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org