Expert Commentary

Children’s “theory of mind” and adolescent involvement with bullying

2011 study from Duke University and King’s College London in Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry on the cognitive origins of bullying.


A March 2011 report by the U.S. Department of Education noted that school-based bullying behaviors tend to shift over time, with younger students more prone to pushing and shoving and older students more likely to engage in verbal and indirect types of bullying such as derogatory slurs and gossip. However, the origins of bullying behaviors may start long before a bully or victim is enrolled in school.

A 2011 study from Duke University and King’s College London published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, “A Prospective Longitudinal Study of Children’s Theory of Mind and Adolescent Involvement with Bullying,” investigates the correlation between low theory of mind (ToM) — an individual’s ability to interpret correctly the mental and emotional states of others — and bullying experiences. Researchers tested 1,116 sets of same-sex British twins at ages 5, 7 to 10, and 12 to assess ToM and IQ levels; the study also included assessments from teachers, questions gauging the female caretaker’s own ToM and mental health, and data relating to gender and socioeconomic factors.

Study findings include:

  • Adolescent bullies, victims and bully-victims (individuals who both bully others and have been bullied) all scored appreciably lower on the ToM scale at age 5 than did the control group who had not experienced any type of bullying.
  • “Youth who had poor ToM in early childhood [age 5] were more likely to become victims of bullying in early adolescence [age 12].”
  • Children from homes lacking sufficient material or emotional supports were the most likely to bully others by the time they reached early adolescence: “Being maltreated overrides the risk posed by having poor ToM for becoming a bully.”
  • A child’s IQ score was not a determining factor in whether or not a child would be bullied: “There is something specific about children’s inability to understand others’ mental states, as opposed to general cognitive/intellectual difficulties, that place them at an increased risk of being victimized.”
  • The findings that bullies typically have poor ToM does not seem to support the notion of bullies being “skilled social manipulators.” The study did not distinguish “ring leaders” from followers, however, leaving open the possibility that it is the followers who have lower ToM and that the fewer leaders have higher such mental abilities.
  • The researchers theorize that the link between ToM and bullying/victimization may rest on the following: “First, poor understanding of other people’s intentions and emotions may jeopardize children’s ability to detect social cues that indicate nonreciprocal interactions, thus placing them at risk of being victimized or exploited. Second, poor ToM may increase the risk of bullying victimization by affecting children’s ability to negotiate conflicts or stand up for themselves, resulting in being viewed as easy targets for threats and abuse. Third, according to the social skills deficit model, children may be biased when they process social cues and interpret ambiguous situations as being hostile…. Children may engage in bullying behaviors as a way of dealing with perceived conflicts.”

The researchers emphasize the need for intervention at younger ages: “Supporting children with poor ToM early on in their schooling years may help improve their social interactions and reduce their vulnerability for later involvement in bullying.”

Tags: children, metastudy, bullying, mental health, cognition

About The Author