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Kansas Safe and Secure Schools / Bullying Awareness and Prevention

Types of Bullies

"All data point in the same direction … that bullies have no problem with self-esteem." 

- Dan Olweus, 2002 OSDFS National Technical Assistance Meeting

In a 1978 study, Olweus described three different types of bully:

Dieter Wolke, of the University of Hertfordshire, England, identified a fourth group of bullies:

These characterizations still hold true today.

Surprisingly Skilled
In contrast to the popular notion that bullies lack social skills, research has shown that bullies are actually quite adept at reading social cues and perspective-taking. Rather than using these skills prosocially, such as to empathize with others, they instead use them to identify and prey on peer vulnerabilities.

Bullying Types


Aggressive bullies

"He gave me that look, you know? Like, 'Hey, who do you think you are?' I thought this kid needs to find out right now who's in charge around here."

Aggressive bullies are the most common type of bully. Young people who fall into this category tend to be:

  • Physically strong
  • Impulsive
  • Hot-tempered
  • Belligerent
  • Fearless
  • Coercive
  • Confident
  • Lacking in empathy for their victims.

They have an aggressive personality and are motivated by power and the desire to dominate others. They are also likely to make negative attributions, often seeing slights or hostility in those around them where neither actually exists. According to Olweus, the aggressive bully tends to be most popular in the early school years and then less so in the upper grades — perhaps because young children are more likely than older students to admire the macho image. As students get older, they become better able to think critically about peers and "leaders."

Passive bullies​​

Passive bullies, unlike the ultra-confident aggressive bullies, tend to be insecure. They are also much less popular than the aggressive bullies and often have low-self esteem, few likable qualities, and unhappy home lives. Passive bullies also appear to have difficulties concentrating and focusing their attention at school, as well as violent outbursts or temper tantrums that lead to problems with their peers. Rather than initiating a bullying interaction, passive bullies tend to hang back until one is already under way — usually at the instigation of an aggressive bully. Once a bullying incident begins, passive bullies become enthusiastic participants. In fact, passive bullies are very quick to align themselves with and display intense loyalty to the more powerful aggressive bullies. Some researchers refer to this group as anxious bullies.


"I'm 14 in March and I'm being bullied constantly. In nearly every class, I sit by myself because nobody wants to sit next to me. One of my few friends hangs around with other people because I think he is frightened if he is with me he will get bullied. I'm sick to death and sometimes I feel like killing myself. I wish I was dead."

Bully-victims represent a small percentage of bullies who have been seriously bullied themselves. Bully-victims are often physically weaker than those who bully them but are almost always physically stronger than their own victims. They possess some of the same characteristics as provocative victims (described below); they are easily aroused and sometimes provoke others who are clearly weaker than they are. Bully-victims are generally unpopular with their peers, and they are more likely than other types of bullies to be both anxious and depressed.

Pure bullies

"It appears that pure bullies are healthy individuals, who enjoy school and use bullying to obtain dominance."

Dieter Wolke, of the University of Hertfordshire, England, identified a fourth group of bullies:

  • Pure bullies (also labeled as "cool operators").

Pure bullies have not been victimized themselves, and they are rarely absent from school — presumably because they enjoy victimizing their peers.

Bullying References

Besag, V. E. (1989). Bullies and Victims in Schools. Milton Keynes, England: Open University Press.

Boulton, M. & Underwood, K. (1992). Bully/Victim Problems Among Middle School Children. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 62, 73-87.

Caldwell, E. (Autumn/Winter 1997). Sticks and Stones. Perspectives: Research, Scholarship, and Creative Activity at Ohio University. Available on-line at: www.ohiou.edu/perspectives/9702/bully2.htm. Retrieved January, 2004.

Elliott, M. (1993). Bullies, Victims, Signs, Solutions. In M. Elliott (Ed.), Bullying: A Practical Guide to Coping for Schools (pp. 8-14). Harlow, England: Longman.

National Crime Prevention Council (2003). Bullying, Not Terrorist Attack, Biggest Threat Seen by U.S. Teens (press release). Washington, DC: National Crime Prevention Council.

Olweus, D. (1978). Aggression in Schools: Bullies and Whipping Boys. Washington, DC: Hemisphere.

Olweus, D. (2001). Peer Harassment: A Critical Analysis and Some Important Issues. In J. Juvonen & S. Graham (Eds.), Peer Harassment in School: The Plight of the Vulnerable and Victimized (pp. 3-20). New York: Guilford Press.

Randall, P. E. (1997). Adult Bullying: Perpetrators and Victims. London: Routledge.

Ross, D. (2003). Childhood Bullying, Teasing, and Violence: What School Personnel, Other Professionals, and Parents Can Do (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association.

Swearer, S. M., Song, S. Y., Cary, P. T., Eagler, J. W., & Mickelson, W. T. (2001). Psychosocial Correlates in Bullying and Victimization: The Relationship Between Depression, Anxiety, and Bully/Victim Status. Journal of Emotional Abuse, 2(2/3), 95-121.

U.S. Department of Education (1998). Preventing Bullying: A Manual for Schools and Communities. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

Whitney, I. & Smith, P. K. (1993). A Survey of the Nature and Extent of Bully/Victim Problems in Junior/Middle and Secondary Schools. Educational Research, 35, 3-25.

Wolke, D. (December 24, 1999). In S. Cassidy, Beware the "Pure Bully" Who Never Takes Time Off. Times Educational Supplement, News Section, p. 3.

For more information, contact:

John Calvert
Safe and Secure Schools Unit
(785) 296-7056

Jim Green
School Safety Specialist
Safe and Secure Schools Unit
(785) 296-4946

John Calvert and Jim Green

The Kansas State Department of Education's Safe and Secure Schools Unit, John Calvert (left) and Jim Green (right).

Bullying Resources

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