Why Do People Bully?

 Teenage girl in her bedroom on devices, showing a range of emotions including happiness and saddness

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Bullying is a behavior that has historically been linked to kids on the playground, but it can happen among people of any age in any setting—schools, households, workplaces. So the main question observers of such conduct have is...why do people bully others? 

The driving forces behind bullying may vary from person to person, but bullies share some common characteristics. For example, some people bully because they know that it gets them what they want, while others bully because they are deeply insecure. No matter the cause, bullying is unacceptable, regardless of where it takes place.

What Is Bullying?

Bullying is repeated unwelcome and hostile behavior long linked to power imbalances. Bullies often target people who are younger or smaller than they are, who work as their subordinates, or who belong to marginalized or minority groups. Sometimes, envy motivates people to bully; individuals with personal traits, skills, relationships, or possessions that bullies want to possess themselves become targets.

Bullies victimize others by using tactics including:

  • Intimidation
  • Threats
  • Insults
  • Intentional exclusion
  • Spreading rumors and lies

Bullying exists on a spectrum. Not all bullies resort to hitting or name-calling, as children are known to do. Sophisticated adult bullies may engage in smear campaigns against their targets rather than insult them to their faces. They might also enlist others to bully a target on their behalf. This is why some anti-bullying groups say that bullying isn’t always easy to define.

However, a bully's end goal is to humiliate or harm other individuals with the intent of ruining their reputation or harming their self-worth.

Causes of Bullying

There’s no one reason why people bully, but many people who engage in this conduct:

  • Feel powerless
  • Suffer from insecurity
  • Need to control others
  • Enjoy the rewards they get from bullying

For example, bullying a classmate might make a kid more popular, or bullying a worker might stop other employees from questioning management decisions. These outcomes show bullies that this conduct pays off.

Bullying is often a learned behavior. Young bullies might live in households where adults bully one another to get their way or deal with conflict. They might not know how else to get their needs met or how to manage disagreements.

Some bullies have had temper tantrums to get their way since they were small children and were never told "no." Others were once bullied themselves and repeated the behavior to feel powerful. 

Some supervisors bully their subordinates to deflect attention away from their incompetence. Other bullies believe their status entitles them to bully individuals of lower rank. These bullies might also lack empathy, have narcissistic traits, or be emotionally unstable and dysregulated. Controlling and intimidating others helps them to feel better about themselves and self-soothe. 

The Impact of Bullying 

Bullying is harmful not only to targets of this behavior but to bystanders and bullies themselves. Targets of bullies may:

  • Develop mental health problems like anxiety and depression
  • Experience eating and sleeping changes
  • Feel lonely and isolated
  • Have suicidal thoughts
  • Withdraw from activities they once enjoyed
  • Miss days of school
  • Drop out of school

Adults experiencing workplace bullying may increasingly call in sick from work. In addition, youth and adults who are bullied have sometimes resorted to violent measures, including mass shootings, to get revenge on their tormentors. That’s why it’s important to seek out a licensed mental health professional to work through the difficult emotions that arise in the wake of bullying. 

Bystanders of bullying suffer, too. Young people who witness bullying are at increased risk of using illicit substances, tobacco, or alcohol. Like targets of bullies, they might also have more school absences and may develop mental health problems, especially anxiety and depression. In addition, witnesses of bullying might feel guilty or ashamed for not intervening. In the workplace, observing bullying can lower morale and increase turnover rates.

Bystanders can play important roles in ending the bullying they see, particularly if they are in positions of power or have the same rank as the bully. Rather than turning a blind eye to bullying, witnesses can call out the bully or report the bully’s behavior to others. Witnesses can also take the initiative by backing up the target’s accounts about the bully. Unfortunately, many bystanders don’t speak up because they’re afraid they’ll become the bully’s next target.

Bullies themselves suffer consequences from their actions. They, too, have an increased risk of substance use disorders and quitting school. In addition, they tend to have more physical fights, engage in sexual activity at younger ages, and enter the criminal justice system.

As adults, bullies are more likely to abuse their children and significant others. And while workplace bullies might be able to move up the corporate ladder, they must contend with the low morale, decreased productivity, and high turnover rates their behaviors cause. They may face workplace investigations, formal complaints, and lawsuits about their conduct as well. 

Bullies who have some insight into their behavior may discuss the catalyst behind their bullying with a mental health provider. Then, in therapy, they can address where they learned to bully and the impact of their conduct on others. If schools, workplaces, and family members protect bullies, though, these individuals might not think they need help. 

Action Against School Bullies

Protecting oneself against bullies typically requires effort and sacrifice. Youth who are being bullied might benefit from assertiveness training or self-defense classes, especially if they are physically bullied.

Families might also want to evaluate if any dynamics in the household contributed to their child becoming a target. For example, living in a household with authoritarian parents where children are punished for expressing their thoughts and needs makes it harder for youth to assert themselves and set boundaries with bullies

Of course, the school environment also plays a role in preventing bullying or allowing it to spread. For instance, the families of targeted children might need to make arrangements with school staff to ensure that bullies don’t have access to them before and after school or between class periods.

If school administrators or faculty members don’t listen to the concerns of the targeted child’s family, it might be time to consider switching schools, homeschooling, or remote schooling. 

Taking legal action against the school or school district might be a possibility, too. This is certainly true if the bullied child is being targeted because of race, sexual orientation, disability, or another marginalized status.

The potential of lawsuits, bad press, and tragedies resulting from bullying is one reason school districts increasingly have anti-bullying programs. These initiatives educate the school community about bullying behaviors and urge bystanders, parents, and school staff to intervene.   

Online Bullying

In the 21st century, bullying is equally as likely to occur online as it is in person. If the bullying has spread to social media, families might need to do more than block their child’s bullies on these platforms. They might need to contact the support staff of social media networks to have the bullies banned for violating the terms of service.

Many of these platforms prohibit common cyberbullying tactics such as impersonation or harassment. It should also be possible to remove offensive videos and other content.   

Recourse for Adults Bullied At Work

Bullied adults can also take steps to protect themselves. If the bullying takes place at work, they should carefully document the behavior and determine if there’s a safe person to speak to about it. If the bully is an immediate supervisor or another higher-up, it might be harder to get results after reporting the bullying.

If you know that other people in your workplace have been bullied as well, consider teaming up with them to add more weight to your concerns.

Unfortunately, targets of workplace bullies may find their jobs in danger after making such a complaint while their abusers remain protected. However, union workers typically have more options than workers without the protection of a union.

If you have evidence that you’re being bullied because of your race, gender, age, disability, sexual orientation, or another protected status, consult a lawyer or consider filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

Looking for a New Job

Companies should take bullying seriously because it can drive the most conscientious and talented employees out of the workplace. If your workplace ignores or permits bullying, it is in your best interest to look for a new job. If you’re financially able and your mental health is seriously suffering, you might need to leave without a new job lined up or try becoming a gig worker or independent contractor to make ends meet until more stable work arrives.  

When applying for jobs in the future, try to research the company beforehand. If the company always seems to be hiring and it isn’t growing exponentially, it might be a hostile work environment with a revolving door of employees.

Read company reviews from current and former employees to see what it’s like to work there, and beware of five-star reviews that paint the company as the perfect workplace.

These could be planted reviews, as even workers who love their jobs typically admit that some areas of the company need improvement. Also, pay attention to how managers behave during the application process. If they are cold, pushy, inconsiderate, or evasive when you ask questions, it might not be a safe place to work.  

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. What Is Bullying? StopBullying.gov.

  2. Effects of Bullying. StopBullying.gov.

  3. Myths and Stereotypes about Workplace Bullying. BullyOnline.org
  4. Effects of Bullying. StopBullying.gov.

By Nadra Nittle
Nadra Nittle is a Los Angeles-based journalist and author. She has covered a wide range of topics, including health, education, race, consumerism, food, and public policy, throughout her career.