Personality traits and bullying behavior

Author: Martha R. Villabona works at Subdirección General de Cooperación Territorial e Innovación Educativa of the Spanish Ministry of Education and Vocational Training, where she coordinates the area of multiple literacies.

Over the last decade, research has focused on studying predictive personality traits that may underlie bullying. Two such traits are self-esteem and narcissism.

Photo by Setyaki Irham on Unsplash

Self-esteem is associated with overall acceptance of oneself, feelings of worthiness and self-confidence. Low self-esteem has long been theorized to be a risk factor for aggression and antisocial behavior 1. Likewise, the association between peer victimization and low self-esteem might be more consistent because victimization is associated with self-blame, loneliness, anxiety, and low self-worth 2.

In relation to narcissism, it has been associated with self- enhancing tendencies, a grandiose and fragile self-view, exploitation of others for personal gain, inflated self-appraisals, and superiority beliefs. In addition, narcissism comprises one dimension of psychopathy that has been linked to antisocial behavior in youth. In general, narcissism involves the belief that one is unique, has a privileged status, and a need for approval from others that manifests vulnerability. Two types of narcissism have been distinguished: the grandiose and the vulnerable. The former manifests traits related to grandiosity, dominance and aggression, while the vulnerable type is characterized primarily by hypersensitivity to the opinions of others, a desire for approval and defensiveness. Both types of narcissism share the display of grandiose fantasies and the need for admiration.

This has led research to argue that a high level of narcissism results in problematic use of social networks such as having poor self-regulation or bullying behavior 3.

Regarding the latter consequence, we know that bullying behavior is a violent phenomenon that occurs when a bully intentionally and repeatedly attacks a victim over time. This situation involves not only the bully and the victim, but also other students, the so-called witnesses. These witnesses act as assistants or reinforcers of the bullying and are used by the bully to gain status in the group. In addition, if the aggressor has a high narcissistic level, he uses the bystanders to enhance his self-image. By dominating others, bullies acquire a status that allows them to maintain or increase their prestige and popularity in the group. They target weaker peers with lower social status because they know they are not capable of standing up to them. This also shows that they have lower self-esteem.

Likewise, bully-victims show high levels of narcissism compared to victims. In this sense, narcissism related to psychopathy has a positive association with reactive and proactive aggression to achieve peer dominance. Specifically, the reactive aggression that characterizes the bully-victim is likely due to the narcissistic view that they have of themselves, since when their ego is threatened, they are more likely to act violently towards their peers to maintain their superiority or defend themselves from threads, real or perceived.

Another study consisted of surveys conducted on 1416 adolescents aged 11-13 years at two time points one year apart, narcissism was found to be a unique personality trait associated with bullying behavior 4. In a first phase, the researchers distinguished bullies, victims, bully-victims and peers. To do so, participants had to report whether they had been involved in different types of bullying (physical, verbal and relational) or how often it happened to them. The results were that during the first year bullies constituted 6.4%, victims 15.3% and bully-victims 10%, while in the second year the data were 6.5% were bullies, 10.6% victims and 8.7% bully-victims. In a second phase, personality traits were analyzed, both, narcissism and self-esteem. The investigators observed that bullies who had higher narcissism scores also had low self-esteem and that this was related to increased bullying over time. Researchers associated these results with a more severe antisocial behavior because bullies plan aggression to achieve the desired goal. The same study showed that victimization was reduced by one year, demonstrating that adolescence has lower rates of victimization.

Another study with a smaller sample of boys and girls in the last three grades of elementary school suggested that a high level of narcissism in boys was a risk factor for bullying, this was not observed in girls. The explanation for this gender difference was already suggested at the end of the 20th century 5. It has been based on the fact that bullying by boys is driven more by inherent personality traits such as narcissism, whereas bullying by girls is driven by situational factors such as peer pressure.

Knowing the traits involved in a bullying situation helps us to establish strategies to reduce bullying. For instance, adolescents can acquire status differently from aggressive behavior, they could train empathy through explicit knowledge of what may cause their aggression, or they might train bystanders not to. Because bullying is a social phenomenon, uninvolved children or bystanders should be encouraged not to reinforce or attribute status goals in this type of behavior, which is at the expense of one or more of their peers.


  1. Donnellan, M. B., Trzesniewski, K. H., Robins, R. W., Moffitt, T. E., & Caspi, A. (2005). Low self-esteem is related to aggression, antisocial behavior, and delinquency. Psychological science, 16(4), 328–335. doi: 10.1111/j.0956-7976.2005.01535.x
  2. O’Moore, A. M., & Kirkham, C. (2001). Self-esteem and its relationship to bullying behavior. Aggressive Behavior, 27, 269-283.
  3. Fanti, K. A., & Henrich, C. C. (2014). Effects of self-esteem and narcissism on bullying and victimization during early adolescence. The Journal of Early Adolescence, 35(1), 5-29.doi:10.1177/02724316135194
  4. Reijntjes, A., Vermande, M., Thomaes, S. et al. (2016). Narcissism, Bullying, and Social Dominance in Youth: A Longitudinal Analysis. Journal Abnorm Child Psychol 44, 63-74. doi: 10.1007/s10802-015-9974-1.
  5. Salmivalli, C., Kaukiainen, A., Kaistaniemi, L., & Lagerspetz, K. M. J. (1999). Self-evaluated self-esteem, peer-evaluated self-esteem, and defensive egotism as predictors of adolescents’ participation in bullying situations. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25, 1268-1278. doi:10.1177/0146167299258008

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  • Have you seen my article on personality disorders, which I think is a better explanation than the sources you cited?

    Coolidge, F. L., DenBoer, J. W., & Segal, D. L. (2004). Personality and neuropsychological correlates of bullying behavior: An empirical investigation. Personality and Individual Differences, 36, 1559-1569.

    Peace Nonetheless,

    • Hi, Dr. Coolidge!
      May I have an access to your work on personality disorders? I would like to read and cite it on my research work. Your response is highly appreciated.

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