Experiencing bullying and aggression as a teen or young adult increases violent ideations


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 fantasise about inflicting harm*, little is known about the processes behind such “violent ideations”.

A team led by a University of Cambridge professor tracked the self-reported thoughts and experiences of 1,465 young people from schools across the Swiss city of Zurich at the ages of 15, 17 and 20.

Researchers 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 young people’s darkest fantasies.

The team also asked about experiences of 23 forms of “victimisation”, such as taunts, physical attacks and sexual harassment by peers, aggressive parenting – yelling, slapping and so on – and dating violence e.g. being pressured into sex.

While the majority of teenagers had been victimised in at least one way, experiencing a range of mistreatment was “closely 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 victimisations on violent fantasies was very similar in both sexes.

Among 17-year-old boys who had not been victimised in the preceding year, the probability of violent fantasies in the last month was 56%.

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

Among girls the same age, no victimisation experience had a violent fantasy probability of 23%, which increased to 59% in those who listed five types of mistreatment, and 73% in those who said they had suffered ten.

“One way to think about fantasies is as our brain rehearsing future scenarios,” said Prof Manuel Eisner, Director of the Violence Research Centre at the University of Cambridge, and 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,” he said.

“These fantasies of hitting back at others may have roots deep in human history, from a time when societies were much more violent, and retribution – or the threat of it – was an important form of protection.”

According to Eisner, the research hints at the extent of violent ideation in societies as seemingly peaceful as Switzerland – with murderous thoughts 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. Close to one in five of all the study participants at that age. These thoughts may be deeply troubling to those who experience them,” he said.

The team – including researchers from the University of Zurich, University of Edinburgh, University of Utrecht, University of Leiden, and Universidad de la Republica – collected and analysed a wealth of data.

As such, they were able to filter out and ‘control’ for other possible triggers for violent thinking in the teenagers. For example, 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,” said Eisner.

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

By following most of the teenagers to the cusp of adulthood, researchers could track patterns over several years. Overall rates of the most extreme thoughts 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 victimisation 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 victimisation actually lead to violent behaviour. However, a consistent finding across criminology is that victims often become offenders, and vice versa,” said Eisner.

“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.”


* Examples of previous research on levels of “homicidal ideation” among adults cited by the study include:

– Between 50-80% of university students report at least one fantasy of killing another person in their life;

– 14% of a community sample of adults had experienced daydreams or thoughts about physically hurting other people in the two months prior to the study.

* The research team also found a minor correlation between consumption of violent media and violent thoughts, but the effects were small. A more significant predictor was simply having reported violent fantasies at an earlier age, as well as a belief that violence can be justified, which contribute to what researchers call “trait aggressiveness”.

* The study was conducted with the Zurich Project on Social Development from Childhood to Adulthood, which is mainly funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation and the Jacobs Foundation. It is hosted by the Jacobs Center for Productive Youth Development at the University of Zurich.

iolence in teenage dating is classified as a phenomenon of an aggressive nature that includes physical, psychological, sexual, and/or emotional abuse taking place within a relationship at ages from early adolescence to the beginning of adulthood [1]. The presence of violence in teenage dating is considered to be one of the main predictors of gender violence in adulthood [2].

In recent times, the rise in violence in teenage dating has become a public health problem worldwide. Consequently, there has been exponential growth in research aimed at tackling this phenomenon [3,4]. It has not been easy, however, to find any explanation for the growth of this type of abusive behavior, mainly due to its multi-causal nature. While there has been in-depth research on the determining role of certain variables, sexism for example, in aggression and in the acceptance of violence [5,6,7], there has been less attention paid to other factors, such as moral disengagement (fundamentally in its mediating function with variables involved in the victimization process).

Dating Violence: Perception of Aggressive Behavior from the Victims’ Point of View

During adolescence, the development of the first dating relationships is of vital importance since they will define future relationships, confirming or rejecting the preconceptions that adolescents have regarding dating [8]. Maintaining or altering the said perceptions can lead to certain behaviors being seen as normal, or even desirable (jealousy, control, etc.), and can modify how adolescents classify what behaviors are or are not abusive [9].

Such modification of perceptions runs the risk of normalizing aggressive behavior. A normalized perception of abuse becomes a risk factor for the transmission of violence from one relationship to another, and even from one generation to another [10]. In this sense, some researchers have noted that, in those teenagers with a high level of acceptance of dating violence, peer aggression and delinquency are significant predictors of recurrent or chronic abuse in a new relationship [11].

The normalized perception of violent behavior and abuse by adolescent victims has been explained through various factors. In this sense, some research has pointed to how society tends to consider people with violent attitudes and behaviors as having an attractive and exciting character.

These types of message, transmitted through the media, make adolescent girls socialize in the imbalance of power that exists between men and women, and make them choose aggressive partners whom they characterize as being the perfect prototype [12].

On the other hand, the perception they have of relationships that do not have these characteristics is that they are less emotionally touching [13,14], and therefore less attractive. For this reason, and especially during adolescence, dating relationships are frequently idealized, creating a hard to attain utopian archetype in which the victims perceive that anything goes in pursuit of the ideal they have created, and around which practically any behavior can be valid, since love can do everything [15].

It must be taken into account how gender stereotypes and roles influence the perception of the behavior that both men and women must have when dating. The roles traditionally associated with the feminine and the masculine can lead to an altered perception of the behavior that each member of the couple has within the relationship. Thus, when violence coincides with gender stereotypes, it is perceived with less seriousness [16].

Influence of Moral Disengagement on Violent Behavior in Teenage Dating

From a cognitive point of view, there are factors that may have equal weight in relation to adolescents’ perception of dating violence. Specifically, their morality and the mechanisms of moral disengagement that they use could affect the view that both aggressors and victims have of themselves.

The concept of moral disengagement can be defined by referring to the mechanisms people use as buffers between their individual moral principles and their actual behavior [17]. Thus, it is especially useful not only to try to legitimize behavior that is violent or goes against the established social and personal morality, but also to understand aggressive behavior as being a legitimate way to pursue and achieve personal goals [18]. To implement this process of legitimization, moral disengagement makes use of eight mechanisms that act on different loci in people’s self-regulation system. These mechanisms are: euphemistic language, moral justification, advantageous comparison, displacement of responsibility, diffusion of responsibility, distortion of consequences, attribution of blame, and dehumanization [17,19].

There has been little research on violence in teenage dating with exploration of the possible implications that moral disengagement mechanisms might have on this phenomenon. The focus of the few studies that have been carried out has tended to be on the figure of the aggressor. The results point to the existence of certain relationships between the moral deficiencies of the aggressors and the violent acts they commit, especially with regard to sexual assaults.

Bandura [20] originally argued that moral disengagement mechanisms could be found incorporated into the mythology of rape, exonerating the aggressors and blaming the victims. This finding was later confirmed and expanded on in studies which noted that, in adolescent dating relationships, sexual aggressions are related to lower levels of guilt and shame [21]. Diverse research studies have found relationships between the eight mechanisms of moral disengagement and the aggressors’ violent behavior.

For example, Tata [22] found that the use of a sense of humor is a form of employing euphemistic language that allows sex offenders to deny their responsibility by labeling their behavior as jokes of no importance. In this regard, other authors have noted how the diffusion of responsibility is used to downplay the act of sexual harassment perpetrated when such acts are carried out in groups of peers. With this, people minimize their personal involvement by sharing the blame out over the other members of the group [23].

There have been even fewer victim-focused studies addressing the determining role that moral disengagement mechanisms might play in victimization. Nevertheless, some authors have noted how learning and using the mechanisms of moral disengagement are a way to rationalize aggressive behavior, and this implies that the victims come to learn that aggression is an appropriate way to respond in disagreements [24]. It is usual for this same phenomenon to appear in children who have suffered abuse during infancy, with their using it as a way to justify, reconstruct, or rationalize the violence they have suffered [25]. Furthermore, it has been found that adolescents who have experienced a higher level of rejection are precisely those who end up developing higher levels of moral disengagement relative to those who have not undergone this type of situation [26].

The cognitive rationalization implied by the use of moral disengagement in victimization has been examined in various violent phenomena, including bullying and cyberbullying. Some researchers have found that victims tend to develop empathy towards their aggressors, and use moral justification as a way to protect their self-esteem [27]. Others have also linked victims’ use of moral disengagement with their justification of both the aggressors’ behavior and their own lack of activity when facing the abuse [28,29]. Cuadrado and Fernández [30] indicated that moral disengagement mediates the relationship between victimization and the perception of the aggression since victims use it in order to minimize the abuse suffered, thereby avoiding the need to ask for help in situations of risk or danger.

Finally, although research focused on violence in teenage dating is scarce, the results commented on above seem also to be applicable to this phenomenon since recent research, has found that victims may use moral justification when they experience violence during their relationship, although this was only found in the case of the youngest subjects of their sample—those of ages from 16 to 18 [2]. Likewise, the results of that study showed that dehumanization is a moderator of the relationship between moral disengagement and victimization in a dating relationship. This indicates that those people with high scores in the use of the two mechanisms, i.e., dehumanization and moral justification, are those who report having suffered a greater number of aggressions.

Taking into account the few research studies that have analyzed the role that moral disengagement may play for the victims, it is necessary to analyze this relationship in greater depth in order to understand what are the factors that may be perpetuating victimization, even leading to the victims not seeing themselves as such, which makes detection and intervention difficult. In this sense, the moral disengagement mechanisms function in adolescents by deactivating their self-regulation moral mechanisms [31]. Applied to the phenomenon of dating violence, these facts could be contributing to the perception that victims form of their relationships. Therefore, the specific objective of the present study was to explore the possible mediating role of moral disengagement in the relationship between self-perception of the abuse suffered and victimization. To respond to these objectives, we formulated the following hypotheses:

Hypothesis 1 (H1).
Moral disengagement will exert a mediating effect on the relationship between the perception of dating violence and victimization.

Hypothesis 2 (H2).
Acceptance will moderate the relationship between the perception of dating violence and victimization via moral disengagement.

reference link: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7400521/

Original Research: Open access.
The association of polyvictimization with violent ideations in late adolescence and early adulthood: A longitudinal study” by Manuel Eisner et al. Aggressive Behavior


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