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Male bullies get better at taking risks throughout their teenage years

10 October 2019

Male bullies and males who are both bullies and victims of bullying improve their risk-taking decisions through adolescence, UCL Institute of Education (IOE) research reveals.

Male teenager with hand raised

Academics at the IOE investigated decision making (measured with the Cambridge Gambling Task) in 13,888 children from age 11 through to age 14. 

The research, funded by the ESRC, was conducted with children from the Millennium Cohort Study who took the gambling task at age 11 and 14 and completed self-reports of their involvement in bullying. 

Using this data, the researchers found that male bullies’ risk adjustment improved over time. Risk adjustment is the extent to which betting behaviour is moderated by probability, i.e. it is the tendency to stake higher bets on situations where the probability of winning the bet is higher.

Professor Eirini Flouri and Dr Steven Papachristou also found that both male and female bullies are more sensitive to reward (or less sensitive to punishment) than those not involved in bullying.

Professor Flouri said: “Sensitivity to rewards and punishments is thought to contribute to the development of common mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety. In this study we explored if this is related to bullying involvement in early and middle adolescence. We found that bullies were more sensitive to reward (or less sensitive to punishment) than those not involved in bullying. We also showed that male bullies improved over time in risk adjustment, i.e., they adjusted their responses appropriately, according to the probability of the outcome. 

“This finding warrants further research, but suggests that male bullies show ‘strategic thinking’. The absence of such an effect in females may be because proactive bullying, the type that is apparently strategic and thus likely associated with sensitivity to rewards and punishments, is used more frequently by males compared to females and comes at a cost in females.”

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