Allegations that Mitt Romney harassed classmates during his prep school years brings to light the longstanding issue of bullying.

© Cranbrook Schools
Mitt Romney shown in his 1965 senior class photo from Cranbrook Schools
The Gist
  • Contrary to popular belief, bullies often have high self-esteem.
  • Bullies can lose their moral compass when driven by their peers.
Gov. Mitt Romney has found himself on the defensive responding to allegations that as a teenager he harassed two prep school classmates who later came out as gay.

Some have questioned the timing of a report in the online version of the Washington Post, since it was published one day after President Obama personally endorsed gay marriage.

Others say the story, which referenced four named sources (former classmates of Romney), paints a disturbing portrait of the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, at least during his teenage years.

Either way, the story brings up the ever-present question -- why do people bully?

"It provides these kids with a sense of power," said Catherine Bradshaw, a developmental psychologist who studies bullying at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore. "It's a way of pulling your core group closer and putting someone else out of it."

"The simple reason is it shows that they have power over others," agreed Marlene Snyder, Development Director for the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program in the United States, based in Clemson, S.C. "The reason that they do it repeatedly is that they are getting away with it. Nobody is calling them on their bad behavior. When they aren't called on it they think, 'Well, it must be O.K.'"

This power brings popularity and high social status for bullies, Bradshaw said. "But they're also perceived as disliked."

Evidence has shown that bullies often suffer from social and emotional problems, she added. At the same time, "one of the big myths is that bullies bully because they feel bad about themselves," Snyder said. "The research consistently shows that they have average or above average self-esteem."

"For the longest time we thought for sure that these ringleader bullies were socially rejected, that there was no way that you could establish dominance and control by humiliating other kids or tormenting them," said bullying expert Dorothy Espelage, a psychologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "But now we've shown that there is a peer socialization process -- that bullies tend to have more friends."

Indeed, experts agree that peer influence is crucial in accounting for bullying. "If your peer group says that pushing and shoving and spitting on people or spreading lies is O.K., even though you may have been taught differently in your home, you lose your moral compass," Snyder said.

But researchers also emphasize that parents play a role. "If parents are modeling aggression, the kids might learn that," Bradshaw said. "The things they say to their kids about how to handle conflict and the way they handle conflict, are important."

"The reality is we're not talking to kids early enough and long enough about bullying and healthy relationships," Espelage said.

"As you age, you understand the consequences of your behavior," she added. "I don't think high-schoolers understand that they can be prosecuted."

Snyder emphasized that the definition of bullying is important: "It is not just kids being kids," she said. "A person who bullies intentionally picks out someone that they know is weaker than themselves so that they can intimidate, harass or humiliate them to do their bidding. It is a misuse of their power. This behavior is usually repeated and of course this power differential is there."

"It's not just a conflict," she said. "In a conflict the kids are of equal power. They are still supported by their friends. It's important to understand that bullying is abuse."

This is an update of a piece originally written by Jessica Marshall, which can be read here.