The Science of Bullying


Guest article written by Dr. Susan Foster
Faculty Member, M.Ed. in School Counseling at American Public University

The Science of Bullying

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has classified bullying as a public health crisis.

This is one crisis that is also 100 percent preventable. To do this, educators, parents, and other stakeholders must work to understand the biological, social, and bullyingenvironmental factors that perpetuate bullying. 

Biological factors influence bullying.

As youth violence and bullying incidents occur, it is often the social and environmental stressors that influence bullying that are highlighted. However, there are biological factors and brain mechanisms at work that sustain bullying.  To truly address this crisis, stakeholders need to be aware of these factors and how to manage them.

The first step is to explore the powerful influence that the brain has over the formation of and execution of emotion, cognitions, and behaviors. The brain thrives in its plasticity; it is malleable and mechanized by external factors. Repeated exposure to any stimuli has the potential to change how the brain operates and responds. From the thalamus to the amygdala, biological processes are hard at work forming thoughts and feelings to make sense of the external world. A real world of this happens when a student has anxiety about going to school. The intense feeling can then manifest into school refusal, aggression, and avoidance. Would we, as educators give up on a young child who refuses to go to school? No, we seek to recondition the student’s response, employing interventions that have the potential to reduce or eliminate the anxiety and undesirable behavior. The same could be said for how we address bullying.

So how powerful is this biological response? In a study from the University of Chicago, researchers found that the pleasure centers in the amygdala of adolescents who bully were activated when presented with bullying related stimuli including depictions of accidental and intentional situations (Roach, 2008).  Further, the study revealed areas of the brain responsible for locus of control and self-regulation were not active. Biological processes are taking place in the brain that increase the likelihood that bullying will occur. 

So what can stakeholders to do to effectively address the biological effects of bullying, stakeholders must do the following:

  1. Recognize that bullying is a conditioned response. In conditioning, learning happens when a person links information (Domjan, 2003). Children and adolescents learn to exhibit bullying behavior.  
  2. Monitor and reduce the negative stimuli children and adolescents encounter. This can include any real or perceived aggression, violence, and oppression. Never underestimate the power of social media, television, video games, and interpersonal relationships as breeding ground for bullying behavior.
  3. Provide empathy, social skills, and character education training to address locus of control and self-regulation issues. Stakeholders can work with schools and community partners to ensure that evidence-based curriculum is in place for all children and adolescents in the educational setting. 
  4. Reframe the student’s behavior using high-level thinking questions as an intervention. Pre-bullying behaviors can occur in a matter of seconds.  So can intervention. Questions should follow the “who, what, how” model. Examples might include:

W-Who will be effective by this decision?

H-How did being aggressive accomplish your goal?

W-What might happen if you decide to continue being aggressive?

Remember to avoid using “why” questions.  Children can lack the emotional, developmental and social literacy to make inferences about their behavior.

Like any other public health crisis, prevention is the key!


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2012).  Measuring bullying victimization, perpetration, and bystander experiences: A compendium of assessment tools. Retrieved September 17, 2013 from

Domjan, M. (2003). The principles of learning and behavior (5th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson-Wadsworth.

Roach, J. (2008).  Bullies’ brains light up with pleasure as people squirm. Retrieved from on August 23, 2013.

About the Author:

Dr. Foster holds a Ph.D. in Counselor Education and Supervision, M.Ed. in Counseling with concentration in School Counseling, and  B.A. in Psychology. She is a Certified K-12 School Counselor, National Board Certified Counselor, Associate Professor at APUS, and Licensed Professional Counselor in Louisiana. She specializes in counseling and therapy with children, adolescents, and families.

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