Past studies have shown a positive relationship between narcissism in youth and ringleader bullying. However, most past research lacks a longitudinal component; that is, these studies did not follow the same group of participants over time.
In a new study, published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, researchers sought to find out if longitudinal studies of this relationship would allow them to distinguish between two types of bullying: direct (physical and verbal) and indirect (gossiping). Researchers were also interested in the role that gender played in narcissism and bullying, as boys appear more likely to directly bully, while girls seem more likely to indirectly bully a peer.
Researchers recruited 393 children in elementary schools in the Netherlands to participate in the study. Of these, 51% are female, and all were in the fourth grade at the beginning of the study. All participants remained in the same classroom for the duration of the study. The children self-reported their narcissism scores, which were evaluated on the Childhood Narcissism Scale (CNS). The children were then asked to nominate bullies from their classrooms, and they could not nominate themselves. Teachers also ranked the students on their resource control, meaning a student’s level of social dominance and ability to access scarce materials.
The results of this study revealed gendered differences students. Female students had no specific association with narcissism and bullying. Highly narcissistic females were not more likely to engage in either type of bullying. There was also no overlap between high narcissism and high resource control.
Male students were not only more likely to bully more than females, but male students ranking high on the CNS were also likely to both directly and indirectly bully. Narcissistic male bullies also tended to be successful in terms of social dominance. One reason male narcissistic bullies more often engage in indirect bullying may be because they perceive this type of bullying as more effective. Indirect bullying requires only one participant, whereas direct bullying requires more coordination with peers. Narcissistic males also scored higher in terms of resource control. However, in-depth analysis suggests that bullying, not narcissism, yields higher than average resource control. Males who were high in bullying but low in narcissism scored higher than males low in bullying but higher in narcissism.
Researchers suggested that this study can be used as an intervention strategy for bullies that specifically targets the rewards system of bullying. Bullies can only achieve dominance and prestige when their actions are reinforced by their peers. This can be challenged by developing strategies to discourage bystander behavior in the classroom.