‘I’ve become increasingly interested in cultural differences’

Lance Workman interviews Peter K. Smith about his research on play and bullying.

You’re currently emeritus professor of psychology at Goldsmiths and have worked for many years on social development in children. Two main areas of interest I’d like to discuss are bullying and play, but before we get to that, I’m wondering what led you down the path of developmental psychology?

I went to Sheffield University in 1967 to start my PhD thesis. I had recently read Konrad Lorenz’ book On Aggression (1966), and its controversial ideas about aggression being innate in human nature. I was interested in looking into that. With my doctoral supervisor Kevin Connolly, we thought that looking at origins of aggression in children would be a worthwhile start. Kevin had recently got an advance copy of Niko Tinbergen’s article ‘On war and peace in animals and man’, stressing how little we knew about such matters and the importance of naturalistic observation and ‘human ethology’. So this led to me doing an observational (or ‘ethological’) study of children’s behaviour in day nurseries. For a year I spent four days a week visiting four day nurseries each on a daily basis. I learnt a lot about three- and four-year-olds! (This was useful later as a parent). And of course they did sometimes fight – but not often. I was much more frequently describing the various kinds of play they did – so although I did write a bit about aggression at that age, my main research in the 1970s and 1980s moved into children’s play.

Picking up on play, for most behaviours we can see an obvious positive functional outcome – but on the surface, play, which takes up so much time and energy, seems to be functionless?

Yes, in the sense that usual definitions of play include the idea that it is done ‘for its own sake’, and having no clear immediate benefits or obvious goal. But on the other hand it is ubiquitous in mammalian and some other species, and it has costs (in time, energy, risk of injury), so from an evolutionary perspective it should have benefits. The benefits may be long-term – developing future skills – or more immediate – enhancing physical fitness and encouraging creative behaviour, for example. I explored these themes in my first major publication, ‘Does play matter? Functional and evolutionary aspects of animal and human play’, published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences in 1982. The fascinating part of that was getting a wide range of Commentaries – some of them complimentary, some not! 

You have considered the similarities of play in children and in great apes. Do you think play serves the same purpose in humans and apes?

I have had a long collaboration with Tony Pellegrini in the USA, and we edited a book called The nature of play: Great apes and humans in 2005. Probably physical activity play and rough-and-tumble play serve somewhat similar functions – physical fitness is useful whatever species you are. The intriguing comparison here is fantasy or pretend play. Although there are a few anecdotal accounts of pretend play in great apes, they are very simple and limited behaviours. But it is seen widely in human children, in every society. This suggests some functionality, related to the more uniquely human attributes around symbolic capacity and language. 

Another interest of yours is the effects grandparents have on their grandchildren. Two questions here. I noticed my friend the social anthropologist Jerome Barkow suddenly become interested in this area following becoming a grandparent – was this the same for you? And what sort of effects do grandparents have on the development of their grandchildren?

Firstly – no. Although I am a grandparent now (times three), my interest in this topic predated that by about 25 years! So far as I remember, I became interested in the topic in the late 1980s because of work in evolutionary psychology about how grandparental involvement was almost unique to humans, and might explain our unusual longevity beyond the normal reproductive timespan. But I quickly became interested in the whole topic, which was very under-researched at the time – especially when you think that some 70 per cent of people become grandparents, often for several decades of their life. So I found a productive niche for doing further work with a relatively small band of researchers, internationally. Since then publications on grandparenting have expanded, but in my view it is still a relatively neglected topic. 

Turning to what is now your main interest – bullying. Play and bullying – two extremes of behaviour – can you see any overlap?

Actually there is some overlap, when we look at play fighting, or rough-and-tumble play. This is generally fun, children ‘self-handicap’ (they do not hit hard), they laugh and carry on being friends afterwards. It very seldom leads to fights or someone being hurt (although not all lunchtime supervisors believe this!). However, in adolescence, it can happen that some youngsters take advantage of the ‘it’s only play’ convention and do actually get rougher and use the opportunity to show their physical strength or dominance to the peer group. So, such episodes may slide into what we think of as bullying.

I hadn’t thought of it like that. I’m wondering does the nature of bullying vary cross-culturally or is it pretty much a universal phenomenon?

 Both. Interestingly, the term itself, bully, has northern European origins, and the Latin based languages have terms for violence and aggression, but not specifically for bullying in the usually defined sense of repetitive aggression against a weaker victim. But they do recognise the concept readily, and in fact have adopted the word bully – or in Italian, il bullismo. Other languages have similar but not identical terms. In Japan, ijime is close in meaning to bullying, but puts more emphasis on psychological exclusion within the group, rather than say individual physical or verbal attacks. 

So I think the kinds of behaviours that we mean by bullying can occur universally. But the forms they take can vary. Also the same kind of objective behaviour might be seen as bullying in one country, but not in another. For example, getting a younger child to carry your bags for you might be seen as bullying in England, but not as ijime in Japan, a more hierarchical society where this would be seen as more acceptable behaviour. 

I was reading one of your articles from around the turn of the century which, if I’ve got this right, appeared to demonstrate, rather than as our stereotype of them would suggest, bullies are not socially inadequate, but rather highly skilled social manipulators?

Indeed. Though the lead author on that was The Psychologist Editor, Jon Sutton! It was one of several articles that got him a prize for best doctoral publications. Children and young people who get involved in bullying vary a lot, of course, but some of them have good theory of mind skills, as Jon showed, and can use them unfortunately to hurt others and escape sanctions. Those papers (from 1999) were highly cited. 

Since then there have been a lot of studies showing that some young people who bully others can have high perceived popularity, although not necessarily actual sociometric popularity – in other words they are seen as influential and high status in the peer group, even if not widely liked. So as some evolutionary psychologists have pointed out, bullying can bring advantages – it can be functional. But that does not mean it is socially desirable, as the behaviour is horrible for victims and damaging for the school climate. So a challenge is to change attitudes and environments so that bullying is not considered acceptable and no longer brings these benefits.

You’ve been involved in initiatives to reduce bullying. What sort of initiatives have been introduced by schools and what level of success have we seen?

Yes – the Sheffield Project from 1991-94 was the first such initiative in the UK, and it resulted in a pack for schools, Don’t Suffer in Silence, which covered whole school policy, curriculum work, playground design and supervision, peer support and other topics. This went to schools across the country. It has since been replaced, but further initiatives continue, including a current try out of the Finnish-inspired KiVa project in Wales, led by Judy Hutchings. 

Internationally, there have been many initiatives. Meta-analyses suggest an overall success rate of 15-20 per cent in reducing bullying perpetration and victimisation. That can be considered encouraging in the light of how difficult it can be to change a pervasive form of human behaviour; but how can we improve on this? Some promising future avenues are firstly, to consider more how to work with children who are tempted to bully, bearing in mind the research showing that they may gain status from bullying. The ringleader bullies especially may be more resistant to change, as the KiVa project has found, but finding ways to give them alternative (more prosocial) pathways to influence and respect is one idea being pursued. 

Secondly, building on the idea of ‘pupil voice’ – giving more say to young people themselves about the best ways forward, given that the majority do dislike bullying. In a recent Erasmus+ five-country project led by Noel Purdy, we found that young people from poorer inner city areas can help produce useful insights and materials (https://www.ou.nl/web/blurred-lives); although their effectiveness in reducing bullying has still to be ascertained. 

So some headway in the last 20 years. Do you think the nature of bullying has changed over the years?

I think two things have changed. One is our understanding of what we mean by aggression – and hence of bullying, which is a subset of aggression. The other is actual changes in behaviour.

Our understanding changed in the later 1980s and early 1990s, due to the work of researchers such as Kaj Bjorkqvist and Nicki Crick. Up until then (for example when I was doing my PhD on aggression in day nurseries), we had thought of aggression as being either physical, or verbal. But then it was pointed out that intentional harm (aggression) could also be done by spreading rumours, systematic social exclusion – what were called indirect or relational forms. So although these forms of aggression and bullying have no doubt always happened – there is no reason to suppose they have changed – they only began to be recorded in recent decades.

What has changed behaviourally of course, primarily this century and notably in the last 15 years, has been the opportunity to attack and bully others in cyberspace – initially with mobile phones and text messaging, increasingly on social networking platforms. Cyberbullying or online bullying has unfortunately become quite prevalent – even though most studies still find it less frequent than traditional or offline bullying. It can take a lot of forms and these can change rapidly as new ICT possibilities are developed and as sites change in usage and popularity. It has, naturally enough, also led to a rapid increase in research on the topic.

About five years ago I interviewed Judith Rich Harris and we discussed her ideas about parents having little or no influence on the way children turn out. I wonder where you stand on this?

 I think it was, at the time, a valuable counter-thrust to the pervasive assumption that parenting was all-important and that correlations of parenting variables with child outcome variables would be causative. There was a lot of sloppy thinking going on, and clearly other factors on outcomes can be peer group influences, neighbourhood influences, genetic influences. Having said that, her ideas may be limited to what Sandra Scarr called ‘good enough parenting’; I do believe that the evidence on, for example, child abuse, shows that extreme negative aspects of parenting can indeed cause negative outcomes. We discuss the controversy in the textbook I wrote with Helen Cowie and Mark Blades, Understanding Children’s Development (6th ed., 2015). 

And finally, what currently drives your interest?

I’ve become increasingly interested in cultural differences, what they are and what may cause them. For example, countries vary a lot on prevalence of school-age bullying, if you look at cross-national surveys such as Health Behaviour of School-aged Children (HBSC), or EU Kids Online (EUKO). That is interesting in itself, but also of interest, and concern, is that these and similar surveys do not agree very well in the rank ordering of countries! So a range of issues come in: (1) how we measure bullying, and whether this differs by survey and interacts with country variables; (2) what is seen as bullying in different countries (cf. discussion of ijme above); (3) in so far as there are actual behavioural differences, in frequency or in type, what might explain these? 

As regards the latter, Anke Görzig, Susanne Robinson and I have been exploring the EUKO five-factor model: cultural values, education system, technological infrastructure, regulatory framework and socio-economic stratification. For example, Hofstede’s individualism-collectivism (I-C) dimension (as well as his other five dimensions) may help understand aspects such as the increased importance of social exclusionary types of bullying in more collectivist cultures such as South Korea and Japan. There again, the I-C dimension has been criticised recently, so there is more work to do here. Some of these themes are explored in two books I recently co-edited, School bullying in different cultures: Eastern and western perspectives’ (2016), and Bullying, cyberbullying and pupil well-being in schools: Comparing European, Australian and Indian Perspectives (2018).

This interest has led me to be confused with my (almost) namesake, Peter B. Smith, also an Emeritus Professor but at Sussex University. He is an expert on cross-cultural issues, though more from a social psychology standpoint. A few years ago I was invited (expenses paid) to a conference in South Korea on cross-cultural issues, and I duly went and talked on school bullying. I did notice that the organiser seemed rather surprised when he met me! Neither of us said anything…

- Find much more on bullying in our archive.

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