Wednesday, December 4, 2019

As expected, exploitation had concurrent and longitudinal associations with bullying, but unexpectedly empathic concern only had concurrent associations and no longitudinal associations with bullying

Empathy, Exploitation, and Adolescent Bullying Perpetration: a Longitudinal Social-Ecological Investigation. Ann H. Farrell, Anthony A. Volk, Tracy Vaillancourt. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, December 4 2019. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10862-019-09767-6

Abstract: Empathy has been often negatively associated with bullying perpetration, whereas tendencies to be exploitative have been relatively understudied with bullying. Empathic concern and exploitation may also indirectly link distal social-ecological factors to bullying perpetration. Therefore, the associations among personality (i.e., empathic concern, exploitation), self-perceived social-ecological factors (school bonding, social resources), and bullying perpetration were examined in a sample of 531 adolescents across three years of high school in Ontario, Canada (i.e., Grades 9 to 11; mean age 14.96 [SD = 0.37] in Grade 9). As expected, exploitation had concurrent and longitudinal associations with bullying, but unexpectedly empathic concern only had concurrent associations and no longitudinal associations with bullying. Also as expected, exploitation indirectly linked self-perceived social resources to bullying perpetration, but unexpectedly there were no indirect effects with empathic concern. Findings suggest a complex social ecology whereby a lack of empathic concern may remain an important correlate of bullying within each year of high school, whereas exploitative tendencies may be an important predictor of bullying across the high school years, including to strategically leverage self-perceived social resources.

Keywords: Bullying Adolescents Exploitation Empathic concern Social-ecology

From the main author's PhD Thesis, excerpts of the general discussion (chp 5):

Increasing evidence supports the suggestion that adolescence may be a
developmental period when bullying can be adaptively used to acquire material, social,
and romantic resources (Volk, Dane, & Marini, 2014). Bullying may be adaptive under a
specific combination of proximate intrinsic and distal extrinsic social ecological factors.
In particular, genetically influenced personality traits may indirectly link broader
environments to adolescent bullying. The purpose of this dissertation was to investigate
the associations between exploitative personality traits and broader social ecologies
(family, peers, school, community, and economic) to see how they independently and
indirectly facilitated adolescent bullying perpetration. These associations were examined
concurrently, longitudinally, and experimentally in three studies. My prediction that the
broader social environments would filter through exploitative personality traits to
indirectly associate with bullying perpetration was largely supported throughout these
three studies.
In Study 1, I found that environmental variables from three different ecological
systems (micro-, meso-, and macro-) were concurrently associated to both direct (i.e.,
physical, verbal) and indirect (i.e., social) forms of adolescent bullying primarily through
a trait capturing exploitation (i.e., lower Honesty-Humility). Direct bullying also had
indirect associations from social ecological variables through a trait capturing
recklessness (i.e., lower Conscientiousness). To extend on Study 1, I examined
personality-environment associations in a sample of adolescents longitudinally. I found
that exploitation, but not empathy, was longitudinally associated with bullying
perpetration across the first three years of high school. Additionally, social ecological
variables, in particular social status and family functioning, were longitudinally
associated with exploitation, and social status was indirectly longitudinally associated
with bullying through exploitation. Finally, given that Studies 1 and 2 were correlational,
in Study 3, I examined whether bullying perpetration could be simulated through point
allocations in economic games in a laboratory setting. I found that economic games can
be a novel way to experimentally investigate bullying perpetration. Self-report bullying
and selfish Dictator Game point allocations were both related to one another and an
exploitative personality trait (i.e., lower Honesty-Humility). Also, the association
between the environment and both forms of behavior were indirectly facilitated through
this exploitative trait. These three studies together contributed two overall themes in the
social ecology of adolescent bullying perpetration. First, these studies demonstrated the
significance of the role of exploitative personality traits, as opposed to a lack of empathy,
general disagreeableness, or impulsivity, within the context of adaptive adolescent
bullying. Second, these three studies demonstrated a complex social ecology of bullying,
whereby broader social environments from multiple ecological systems can indirectly
facilitate bullying perpetration through exploitative personality traits.


Antisocial Personality and Bullying Perpetration: The Importance of Exploitation

Across all three studies, it was evident that traits capturing exploitation were the
most prominent personality correlates of adolescent bullying perpetration. In both Studies
1 and 3, lower Honesty-Humility was significantly associated with higher bullying
perpetration and selfish Dictator Game point allocations (i.e., an experimental proxy for
bullying). In Study 2, higher exploitation was longitudinally associated with bullying
perpetration. These results are consistent with previous concurrent associations between
adolescent bullying and Honesty-Humility (e.g., Book, Volk, & Hosker, 2012; Farrell,
Della Cioppa, Volk, & Book, 2014), experimental studies on economic game behavior
and Honesty-Humility (e.g., Hilbig, Thielmann, Hepp, Klein, & Zettler, 2015; Hilbig,
Thielman, W├╝hrl, & Zettler, 2015; Hilbig & Zettler, 2009; Hilbig, Zettler, Leist, &
Heydasch, 2013), and finally longitudinal studies on bullying perpetration and narcissism
(i.e., comprised of exploitation and self-superiority; Fanti & Henrich, 2015). It was
evident that adolescents may be strategically exploiting weaker and vulnerable peers to
maximize self-gain, while minimizing costs like victim retaliation. More importantly, my
results demonstrate that a predatory, exploitative tendency may be the most relevant
personality risk factor for engaging in bullying, over and above other personality traits
related to antisocial tendencies.
In contrast to previous studies that found bullying perpetration is often associated
with personality traits such as a lack of empathy, a general tendency to be disagreeable or
angry, and higher impulsivity (e.g., Bollmer, Harris, & Milich, 2006; Caravita, Di Blasio,
& Salmivalli, 2009; Tani, Greeman, Schneider, & Fregoso, 2003), I found lower
Honesty-Humility and higher exploitativeness were associated with bullying, despite
controlling for these other antisocial personality traits. In both Studies 1 and 3, I found
that lower Honesty-Humility was the strongest correlate of bullying perpetration, over
and above the other HEXACO personality traits. Although indirect and direct forms of
bullying and Dictator Game point allocations were both negatively related with lower
Agreeableness (and in Study 1 additionally related to lower Conscientiousness), Honesty-
Humility was the strongest correlate. Thus, it appears that predatory exploitation over
weaker individuals may be the driving personality factor facilitating bullying, even if the
other antisocial traits are still important and associated with bullying. These results are
consistent with recent findings that although Honesty-Humility, Emotionality,
Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness from the HEXACO were all associated with
antisocial tendencies, Honesty-Humility was the largest and driving contributor of
antisociality (Book et al., 2016; Book, Visser & Volk, 2015; Hodson et al., 2018).
However, it is important to note that lower Conscientiousness was additionally a
significant multivariate predictor of direct, but not indirect, bullying. This result
demonstrates that in addition to reflecting strategical exploitation, direct forms of
bullying like hitting, pushing, or kicking, may reflect a risky form of antisocial behavior
that is associated with a general recklessness (Volk et al., 2014). These indirect
associations are also consistent with theories of a faster life history, which posit that
certain individuals who experience competitive or adverse social environments may be
more likely to engage in more impulsive and aggressive behavior to obtain immediate,
short-term access to resources, and bullying may be one behavior that can reflect this
strategy (Dane, Marini, Volk, & Vaillancourt, 2017; Del Giudice & Belsky, 2011;
Hawley, 2011). Interestingly, unlike Agreeableness and Conscientiousness, which had at
least univariate associations with bullying, lower Emotionality or lower empathy had the
fewest univariate and multivariate associations with adolescent bullying.
Although contrasting with the prevalent theories linking lower empathy with
bullying, our lack of association agrees with more contemporary theories of adolescent
bullying as an adaptive, predatory strategy. In Study 1, lower Emotionality was not
significantly related at either the univariate or multivariate levels with bullying, and in
Study 2, lower empathy was only concurrently, but not longitudinally, related with higher
bullying. My results are in contrast to those of previous researchers who found significant
associations between child bullying and lower empathy (e.g., Caravita et al., 2009; Zych,
Ttofi, & Farrington, 2016). Instead, my findings support my prediction that instead of a
lack of emotional recognition or response, a predatory exploitation of others’ weaknesses
may be an important reason why adolescents bully. This may be one potential reason why
empathy related interventions may have been largely ineffective for adolescents (Yeager,
Fong, Lee, & Espelage, 2015). Taken together, all three studies not only support existing
literature on the concurrent association between exploitative style traits and adolescent
bullying (e.g., Book et al., 2012), but extend on these findings by providing both quasiexperimental
and longitudinal evidence for this association. These results with
personality and bullying also suggest that not every risk factor for bullying affects all
adolescents in the same way. Instead, adolescents with specific personality traits may be
more likely and willing to use bullying. Further, adolescents with these personality traits
can respond to, or are influenced by, particular environments in multiple ways (Caspi et
al., 2002; Marceau et al., 2013; Moffitt, 2005; Scarr & McCartney, 1983). In my thesis,
these associations between environment and personality were evident through the
multiple social environmental variables that were indirectly associated with bullying
through exploitative personality styles.


Bullying Perpetration and Indirect Associations with Broader Social Ecology

Across the three studies, it was evident that not all social environments facilitate
bullying in the same way for all adolescents. Instead as expected, I found that multiple
adverse and risky social environment variables filtered specifically through exploitative
personality traits to indirectly facilitate adolescent bullying. These social environmental
variables were from multiple ecological systems ranging from proximate economic
power contexts and peer and family relationships, to distal school and community
variables. Starting with the more proximate factors, all three studies demonstrated that
social relationships in the microsystem (i.e., immediate social context), had indirect
associations with bullying most frequently through either lower Honesty-Humility (i.e.,
Study 1 and 3), or higher exploitation (i.e., Study 2), as opposed to other antisocial
personality traits. Occasionally in Study 1, a proximate ecological factor was found to
have an indirect effect with bullying primarily through Honesty-Humility and secondarily
through lower Conscientiousness. In these instances, the strength of the indirect
associations through Honesty-Humility and Conscientiousness were often comparable, as
indicated through the standardized beta coefficients. The associations with Honesty-
Humility and exploitation may be a result of predatory individuals being able to
strategically take advantage of adverse and/or risky social ecological circumstances.
Adverse social relationships including poorer family dynamics and higher peer
problems, along with powerful social positions such as higher social status (i.e., Study 2)
or higher interpersonal influence (i.e., Study 1 and 3), appeared to be risk factors
indirectly associated with bullying through exploitative personality styles. Individuals
with higher social status or social influence, and individuals who experience negative
social relationships characterized by conflict, lower support and lower warmth, may
exploit these social environments. For example, adolescents who know their parents do
not have much knowledge or care for their whereabouts may take advantage of this lack
of interest by engaging in bullying, knowing that they would have fewer repercussions.
Likewise, adolescents who know they have poorer friendships may exploit these friends
and employ these friends in bullying strategies. Finally, exploiting these relationships
may be especially advantageous for adolescents who have higher social status, as they
would likely have greater influence when navigating their peer networks to effectively
assert their power through bullying tactics. These concurrent results held longitudinally
across three years of adolescence, and also held when manipulating dyadic economic
contexts in a laboratory setting.
These results are consistent with broader evolutionary frameworks that help
explain the use of aggressive behavior. Bullying may be a facultative or conditional
adaptation that an adolescent may consciously or subconsciously decide to engage in
after evaluating his or her own personality traits (i.e., exploitative tendencies; Buss, 2011)
in combination with their broader environments (e.g., friendships, family relationships,
social status; Dane et al., 2017; Del Giudice & Belsky, 2011; Hawley, 2011; Volk,
Camilleri, Dane, & Marini, 2012). Adverse and negative social environments may also
facilitate faster life history strategies that encourage aggressive behavior like bullying (as
opposed to cooperative, long-term strategies) as an immediate means for resources (Del
Giudice & Belsky, 2011; Hawley, 2011). After these assessments of the self and
environment, an adolescent may anticipate the immediate benefits of bullying over
weaker peers may outweigh the costs. Additionally, if previous uses of bullying have
been successful, these dominant and exploitative adolescents may be more inclined to use
this behavior again (Dawkins, 1989). Alternatively, adolescents who possess certain
genetically based personality traits such as exploitative tendencies, may already be more
likely to use coercive or bullying behavior, as opposed to prosocial or cooperative forms
of behavior (Del Giudice & Belsky, 2011).
In addition to evolutionary frameworks, my results are consistent with
Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory (EST; Bronfenbrenner, 1979), and with
recent findings that multiple ecological levels can differentially facilitate bullying
perpetration (e.g., Hong & Espelage, 2012). Furthermore, my results demonstrate that
multiple ecological contexts can have indirect associations with individual differences in
personality, similar to previous ecological studies on bullying (e.g., Barboza et al., 2009;
Lee, 2011; Low & Espelage, 2014). However, my results provide some key novel
contributions. My findings demonstrate that there are indirect associations from adverse
parental and peer relationships and socially powerful positions to bullying, specifically
through exploitative traits, as opposed to other antisocial personality traits. These results
are likely due to the reason that exploitative adolescents may be more willing and able to
take advantage of adverse relationships and powerful positions.
It is likely that within these environmental contexts, exploitative adolescents may
experience more social benefits when using bullying (e.g., increased social status), and
may simultaneously have fewer costs imposed by parents and/or weaker peers. One of the
most noteworthy and prominent social ecological variables that emerged were status
related variables that indicate higher power. Across all three studies, it was evident that
higher social status (i.e., Study 2) or higher interpersonal influence (i.e., Studies 1 and 3)
were commonly associated with bullying through exploitative personality, and this
association held concurrently, longitudinally, and in a laboratory based experimental
setting. Bullying is fundamentally about a power imbalance (Volk et al., 2014). By
definition, bullying requires an individual with more power to inflict harm on a weaker
individual. As evident throughout animal studies (e.g., hierarchy in hyenas; Stewart,
1987), and in research in which human participants are assigned a powerful role (e.g.,
role of prison guards; Haney, Banks, & Zimbardo, 1973), a position of higher status and
social power can be translated into gaining resources at the expense of others. It is not
surprising then, that this fundamental feature that distinguishes bullying from other forms
of aggression is reflected in the broader adolescent social ecology. Those willing to use
power to inflict harm on weaker peers may be more effective in doing so if they have
exploitative, predatory tendencies (as opposed a general lack of concern or empathy for
others). These exploitative tendencies will ultimately assist in taking advantage of higher
social status and influence to strategically bully weaker peers, who are less likely to
defend themselves and/or retaliate.
My findings are similar to previous associations between strategic adolescent
bullying and higher perceived popularity, social status, and influence (Dijkstra,
Lindenberg, & Veenstra, 2008; Garandeau, Lee, & Salmivalli, 2013; Pellegrini & Long,
2002; Reijntjes et al., 2013; Sentse, Veenstra, Kiuru, & Salmivalli, 2015; Sijtsema,
Veenstra, Lindenberg, & Salmivalli, 2009). Additionally, these results are consistent with
those of previous researchers who found that although adolescents who bully can be high
in peer-perceived popularity, power, and status, they are not necessarily socially preferred
or liked by peers as friends (Vaillancourt & Hymel 2006). Researchers have found that
early adolescence is a developmental period when peer-perceived popularity is most
valued (LaFontana & Cillessen, 2010). As a result, given that adolescents may be
exploiting their social status to engage in bullying, my results support the notion that
bullying can be used selectively and adaptively by adolescents for status, a goal that is
highly salient during adolescence. A similar pattern of indirect effects also emerged with
more distal ecological variables.
Adverse mesosystem variables (i.e., interactions among immediate social
environments), and macrosystem variables (i.e., broader cultural attitudes and values)
also indirectly facilitated bullying through either lower Honesty-Humility or higher
exploitation. Risky, negative aspects of the social environment such as higher
neighborhood violence, higher school competition, and adverse school climates were
indirectly associated with bullying. It appears that in addition to immediate social
environments, exploitative adolescents may take advantage of wider negative climates to
engage in bullying for self-gain. These broader adverse environments may not provide
the social structures including discipline that could prevent adolescents from acting on
their exploitative motivations. Thus, in addition to assessments of the self and
environment, adolescents may have learned the benefits of bullying within these
environments outweigh the costs through vicarious reinforcement, consistent with the
Social Learning Theory (Bandura, 1978). The fact that risky environments filtered
through both lower Honesty-Humility and lower Conscientiousness for direct bullying
behavior in Study 1 suggests that while all forms of bullying can be strategically
implemented within the right conditions, direct forms of bullying behavior also reflect a
recklessness for consequences (Volk et al., 2014), and a tendency to engage in riskier,
aggressive behavior for immediate gain (Del Giudice & Belsky, 2011). Accordingly,
these findings further provide support that not all environments affect all adolescents the
same way. Although predatory, exploitative tendencies appear to filter both proximate
and distal adverse social environments for bullying perpetration, there are even subtle
differences in the bullying behavior used. Poorer social relationships, higher social status,
and more competitive and violent school and neighborhood variables appear to be risk
factors for engaging in bullying as a whole. These variables appear to be risk factors for
exploitative adolescents who may strategically take advantage of these contexts to
adaptively bully. However, these adverse environments may also be risk factors for
generally impulsive or reckless adolescents willing to engage in direct forms of bullying.
Accordingly, there appears to be a successful facultative translation of these risky social
environments into adaptive bullying behavior by adolescents with a primarily predatory,
exploitatively personality style.
Taken together, my results are consistent with previous findings on poorer social
relations interacting with Honesty-Humility to predict bullying (e.g., lower parental
knowledge; Farrell, Provenzano, Dane, Marini, & Volk, 2017), and with additional
ecological findings on personality interacting with or indirectly linking social
environments for bullying (Barboza et al., 2009; Lee, 2011; Low & Espelage, 2014). My
findings suggest that adolescents who bully may not necessarily be generally
disagreeable, antisocial individuals with a lack of empathy. Instead, adolescent
perpetrators may be strategic, exploitative individuals who are able to take advantage of
their broader social environments and immediate social influence to gain more benefits,
while simultaneously reducing costs. Both Studies 1 and 2 demonstrated that the distal
and proximate environmental contexts may adaptively filter through an exploitative
personality trait to predict bullying, a behavior rooted in taking advantage of power.
However, Study 3 extended findings from the previous two studies by demonstrating how
proximate contextual factors like power can be manipulated to examine bullying and/or
similarly related competitive behavior, and how these forms of behavior relate with
personality. Despite these significant contributions, this dissertation was not without
limitations.

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