Experiencing bullying leads to fantasizing about committing acts of violence

May 16, 2021

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Experiencing bullying leads to fantasizing about committing acts of violence

Experiencing bullying and forms of aggression in late adolescence and early adulthood is linked to a marked increase in the likelihood of having daydreams or fantasies about hurting or killing people, according to a new study.

While research has shown that significant numbers of people fantasize about inflicting harm, little is known about the processes behind such “violent ideations.”

A team of researchers tracked the self-reported thoughts and experiences of 1,465 adolescents and adults. They gathered data on whether violent thoughts had occurred in the last 30 days, and the types of bullying or aggression experienced over the last 12 months.

They used questionnaires to probe the levels of aggression (humiliation, beatings, murder) and imagined targets (strangers, friends) within the victims’ darkest fantasies.

The team also asked about experiences of 23 forms of “victimization,” such as taunts, physical attacks and sexual harassment by peers, and dating violence, e.g., being pressured into sex.

While the majority of subjects had been victimized in at least one way, experiencing a range of mistreatment was associated with a higher likelihood of thinking about killing, attacking or humiliating others.

Boys were more prone to violent thinking in general, but the effect of multiple victimizations on violent fantasies was very similar in both sexes.

With every additional type of mistreatment, the probability of violent fantasies increased by up to 8%. Those who listed five forms of victimization had an 85% probability of having had violent fantasies; for those who listed ten it was 97%.

Among female respondents, violent fantasy probability was 59% in those who listed five types of mistreatment, and 73% in those who said they had suffered ten.

What the researchers say: “One way to think about fantasies is as our brain rehearsing future scenarios,” said the lead author of the study published in the journal Aggressive Behavior. “The increased violent fantasies among those who experience bullying or mistreatment may be a psychological mechanism to help prepare them for violence to come.”

According to the researchers, the extent of violent ideation, including murderous thoughts, in societies as seemingly peaceful as Switzerland (where the research was undertaken) was surprisingly commonplace.

“About 25% of all 17-year-old boys and 13% of girls reported having at least one fantasy of killing a person they know during the past thirty days. These thoughts may be deeply troubling to those who experience them,” they said. They found that socio-economic status played little role in violent fantasy rates.

The study also shows that “adverse life events” such as financial troubles or parental separation had no significant impact. “Thoughts of killing others are triggered by experiences of interpersonal harm-doing, attacks on our personal identity, rather than noxious stimuli more generally,” they concluded.

‘It’s the difference between conditions that make people angry and upset, and those that make people vengeful.”

By following most of the subjects from mid-teens to adulthood, researchers could track patterns over several years. Overall rates of the most extreme thoughts in people with little experience of bullying decreased by the age of twenty: only 14% of young men and 5.5% of women had thought about killing someone they know in the past month.

However, the effects of victimization on violent fantasies did not lessen as they grew up, suggesting the intensity of this psychological mechanism may not fade.

"This study did not examine whether violent ideations caused by victimization actually lead to violent behavior. However, a consistent finding across criminology is that victims often become offenders, and vice versa," the lead author cautioned.

“Fantasies are unrestrained, and the vengeance taken in our minds is often wildly disproportionate to the real-world event which triggered it. Studying the mechanisms behind violent fantasies, particularly at a young age, may help with targeted interventions that can stop obsessive rumination turning horribly real.”

So, what? The interesting thing to me is what happens to victims when the bullying occurs in the work environment? There is no psychological reason that I can think of why more adult victims would not have the same sort of fantasies, as reported in this study.

My guess, from other studies over the last few years, is that they may take it out on the organization they work for, since they would normally look to it for protection.

Interestingly, a 2018 study of workplace bullying and aggression showed that people bullied in the workplace often became bullies themselves. That study focused largely on health care workers, but the researchers said their findings would apply more generally.

“Our research provides further evidence that being a target of aggression represents a frustrating situation in which victims experience anger that may prompt a ‘hot’ and impulsive aggressive response,” said the lead author of that study.

Alicia and I are going to be giving a presentation of the science behind bullying and the how-to of preventing and stopping it at the annual conference of ethics professionals next week. It’s something that we’re frequently asked to advise on.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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