Why Bullied People Often Turn Into Bullies

a person sitting with their hands wrapped around their knees (you can't see their face)
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Life is messy. Complicated. Human beings are imperfect, and even in good friendships and romantic relationships, there will come a time when one person will step on the other’s toes.

And after the person whose toe was stepped has dealt with the immediate pain and impact, they’ll often move to the question of intent. Did they step on my toe on purpose? Did they try to hurt me? Or was it an accident?

How we come to these conclusions about the intent of other people is complicated. And all of it is of course informed by the relationship we have with the person who has hurt us and what else is going on in our life.

Yet there’s another variable that remains relatively unchanging and can easily follow us from relationship to relationship. From day to day.

And that’s whether we have hostile or benign attribution bias.

Hostile Attribution Bias

When a person has a hostile attribution bias, they’re far more likely to interpret the behavior of others as having hostile intent.

For example, a person with hostile attribution bias might lock eyes with someone sitting across the room and conclude that person is staring at them and gossiping about them, even if that other person merely glanced in their direction at the wrong time.

Similarly, they might decide if people are laughing about something as they walk by them that the people are indeed laughing about them.

And of course, for a person with an overly developed hostile attribution bias, it can be rather difficult to believe that you stepped on their foot by mistake. Which predictably can lead to a lot of problems in close friendships or romantic relationships.

Researchers first noted hostile attribution bias as a formal concept in 1980 during work in which they were able to find that certain children really did attribute hostile intent to others in social situations more often than others. Later studies also found the following:

  • Being the target of bullying increased the risk of a person developing hostile attribution bias
  • People prone to hostile attribution bias were more likely to hit, bully, or verbally lash out at others

In other words, through the mechanism of hostile attribution bias, being bullied could very easily turn people into bullies.

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This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.

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Books by Page Turner:

Dealing with Difficult Metamours

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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