Paper Review: Bystanders’ Roles in School Bullying

Choi, S. & Il Cho Y. (2013). Influence of psychological and social factors on bystanders’ roles in school bullying among Korean-American students in the United StatesSchool Psychology International, 34(1), 67–81. 

This paper caught my eye via Twitter a little while ago, and as it’s right up my street in its subject area, and recently published, I thought it would be worthwhile writing a review of it – and why not blog the review, too?

The authors argue that their paper fills a gap in the literature: specifically, in a literature which has focused mainly on African-American or Hispanic students’ bystanding behavior in the face of bullying, this study focuses on bystanding in Asian American (i.e. Korean or Korean-American) USA students (who are more likely to be bullied than other ethnic groups). It also argues that it is one of the first studies that teases out psychological and social variables associated with different types of bystanding behaviour (namely assisting the bully, doing nothing, and actively defending the victim).

The first claim I take no issue with. The study does indeed focus on Asian-American students where other studies do not.  However, while the authors cite Gini et al. (2008) for a definition of bystander behaviour, and for age effects, Choi and Il Cho (2013) does not cite Gini et al. (2008) for its work on active versus passive bystanding (i.e. different  types of bystander behaviour) published five years before their paper went to print. Neither do they cite Pöyhönen, Juvonen, and  Salmivalli (2012) who disentangled those who were passive bystanders from those who reinforced the bullying or defended the victim (the three sub-groupings used by Choi and Il Cho) on outcome expectancy measures. One might argue that the aforementioned paper was published too recently to be included. But Choi and Il Cho (2013) also doesn’t cite  Salmivalli, Voeten and Poskiparta (2011) showing that the nature of reinforcing versus defending behaviour has an influence on the frequency of later bullying. Thus the literature review of this paper appears incomplete. 

The study reported in Choi and Il Cho (2013) involved 238 Korean or Korean American students, spanning Grades 3-12. The number of children in each grade is not given, though roughly a third attended each of elementary middle and high schools. Students self-reported on their “participant role” (see Salmivalli et al., 1996)  in bullying in their classroom, their empathy, their responsibility (acting on behalf of others or groups) and the support that they perceive they have from parents, teachers and classmates. This raises the question, as the authors acknowledge, of the influence of shared method variance, as all of the measures came from the same source. It would have been better if peers or teachers had provided ratings on at least one measure to overcome this issue.  The nature of this study is also cross-sectional – so we can’t tell whether psychological and social characteristics lead to, or are the result of experiences in bullying situations.

The above notwithstanding, the authors found that empathy and responsibility were associated with being a defender in a bullying situation. However, those variables were unrelated to being an assistant or an outsider. The nature of the relationship between these variables was interesting. As one might expect, being a defender was associated with higher levels of empathy. More defending of victims was also associated with lower levels of [group] responsibility and lower perceived teacher support. In other words, the more you feel teachers will support anti-bullying messages, and the more you feel that you act on behalf of a group, the less likely you are to act as a defender: it seems from these findings, that defending victims of bullying is about going against the grain and acting alone where other support is not forthcoming…. This could be explained within the frame of social appraisal theory  (Manstead & Fischer, 2001) , or the bystander effect (Darley & Latane, 1968)  and opens up numerous avenues for future research on what it is about people’s perceptions of others’ thoughts, emotions and behaviours that causes people in groups to act in line with the group, while others act alone in bullying incidents.

What seems important to this research, however, and was omitted, was the extent to which the participants were themselves bullied. The authors note that Korean American students are more likely to be bullied because of their ethnicity and potential language problems (citing Shin, D’Antonio, Son, Kim, & Park, 2011, as evidence of this), yet they do not appear to account for the experiences of their participants as victims (or indeed bullies). It would also have been interesting for the researchers to have accounted for the nature of the participants’ defending (were the participants defending Korean victims, or victims of bullying more generally…). One might also ask how non-Korean students act as bystanders in the bullying of Korean students (both among Korean students, and between Korean and non-Korean students), to determine more tightly the extent to which this finding depends on ethnicity per se. More questions for future research.

In conclusion then, while the authors’ review of the literature in this paper doesn’t cite important papers in the field, the study reported shows clear links between defending and the psychological variables of empathy, responsibility and perceived teacher support. The nature of the links between those variables and bullying roles, together with possible improvements to the research design, make the study reported in this paper ripe ground for future, theoretically-informed research.

Further Reading

Darley, J. M. & Latané, B. (1968). Bystander intervention in emergencies: diffusion of responsibility. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 8, 377-383.

Manstead, A. S. R., & Fischer, A. H. (2001). Social appraisal: The social world as object of and influence on appraisal processes. In K. R. Scherer, A. Schorr, & T. Johnstone (Eds.), Appraisal Processes in Emotion: Theory, Research, Application (pp. 221-232). New York: Oxford University Press.


Research is Me-search

It would be a strange world where researchers didn’t engage with topics of research which they feel passionately about, wouldn’t it? Most researchers are looking at something they’re interested in, surely.

A recent School seminar run by Marta Wanat, Emotional Impact of Research on the Researcher got me thinking about the issues surrounding this. To me, it seems there are two main ways in which research might be impacted by the researcher.

The first is where researchers have a real passion for their topic, that might spill over into personal experience of the subject they are investigating. I know researchers who investigate Israeli-Palestinian relations, when they are themselves Palestinian, who are single parents researching single parenthood, and Welsh speakers researching Welsh language and identity. The workshop seemed to conclude, and I agree, that as long as the researcher looks after him or herself, and maintains an open and objective perspective on the research (reflexivity et al.) this is not a problem.

The second is where there is something about the researcher which carries stigma that might impact on the research. An insightful reflection on this is provided in a 2011 paper by Lindsey Brown and Felicity Boardman: Accessing the Field: Disability and the Research Process, in Social Science and Medicine. This paper reflects on how being a researcher with a disability impacts on interviewees’ responses, whether the topic of the research is disability or not, and covers very real practical and ethical dilemmas of this research; dilemmas which otherwise receive little or no attention in the research literature.Further to their paper, I’d also ask about the attention given to presentations from those with a disability, (and by extension any shared or stigmatised identity) at conferences – that’s a whole new kettle of confounds.

From the workshop, and the paper, it seems that the issue underpinning the above two, is one of disclosure. Whether, when, and how one discloses personal interests, perspectives, and experiences to participants. Some researchers don’t have a choice about this, though it can be managed in various ways, myself included. Reflecting on the first case then, I have chosen to only disclose experience of bullying when directly asked by a participant, only after questionnaire completion, and then only as a simple “yes”. I have visited well over 100 schools now in the course of my research, and over 500 classes – I have only been asked twice. I take the same stance on the second case: I don’t go out of my way to hide my physical disability via Skype interviews for example, and only when asked will I disclose it to a child or teacher. I find it hard to see why the visibility of my disability would impact on children’s responses, but I haven’t tested that. I have been asked about my right arm by children three times thus far.

I made the above decisions solo, as it were, several years ago, without recourse to best practice guidelines, because I thought that was what would be best for me and the validity my research findings. The workshop highlighted an important concern, however: If I had tried to go with best practice, I would have found no best practice guidelines to go to – existing code only covers safeguarding procedures aimed at preventing violent abuse from participants.

Marta is running a PsyPAG workshop along the lines of her talk on 11th March, 2013, at Oxford Brookes University. I would highly recommend attendance, and indeed more dialogue surrounding this among postgraduates and grown-up researchers.


Having started teaching at Brookes this week, and concurrently, having started a teaching course, I’m very conscious of the myriad ways in which one can (effectively) teach a given subject or skill, and my approach to the teaching of it.

My teaching this week has been for Masters students . Preparing for that, in itself has been a challenge, since I have relatively little experience, beyond the teaching on my own Masters course, of teaching postgraduates. I was more than a little apprehensive when I entered the classroom this morning.


I was nervous, mainly because I hate standing at the front for two hours talking at students (as much as I hated that approach when I was a student) and was keen to avoid that – the caveat being that anything else won’t work if the students aren’t happy to engage with the learning activities, the class, or the tutor. I was also concerned not to patronize students who had a Psychology background and professional experience that would outshine mine.

On that score at least, I needn’t have worried. The students *did* engage with the class activities and began to see the flaws in the theories I was presenting to them (the grasp of which was the core aim of the seminar).

But now, having been to the course this afternoon, and learnt about learning, I’m thinking of all the different ways I might have taken the session, and wondering if any of these would have worked better. What if I’d asked the students in pairs to read about and present one theory and its critical evaluation to the class, to cover each of theories, rather than getting them in pairs to think about each of the theories in turn? What if I’d asked them to prepare a presentation along those lines ahead of the session? There was no audiovisual stuff in the seminar (a video of one of the studies would have been good, maybe…). There was no definite consolidation activity in there, beyond the application of learnt criteria to a different theory. And – a really good idea – I didn’t ask them for any feedback (one point on a Post-It note at the end of the session would have been cool).

But, as it was, I finished at 12.03pm. There was only so much I could fit in. And without knowing a great deal about the students’ background and past academic achievement, I’m not sure how to choose among the options….how do others decide?