Springer Nature is making SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 research free. View research | View latest news | Sign up for updates

Bullying and Moral Disengagement in Early Adolescence: Do Personality and Family Functioning Matter?

  • 355 Accesses



The present study adopted a multi-informant approach to investigate the contribution of personality and family functioning to moral disengagement and bullying-related behaviors in early adolescence.


The sample included 102 early adolescents (53 boys and 49 girls; Mage = 12.21 years). Behaviors during bullying situations were detected by peer nominations. Self-report measures were administered to assess moral disengagement and family functioning. A parent-report was administered to detect personality traits.


Findings of the hierarchical regression analyses (effect size = 0.23, power = 0.95, α = 5%; CI = 95%) showed that extraversion was positively associated with bullying and moral disengagement, while benevolence was positively associated with defending behavior. Family functioning was negatively associated with moral disengagement. Moderation analyses indicated that a low conscientiousness, together with a low family functioning, decreased the likelihood of defending behavior and increased the risk of bullying. High levels of benevolence decreased outsider behavior in students with a high family functioning. Although extraversion was positively associated with bullying and moral disengagement, findings suggested that it increased moral disengagement only among early adolescents with low family functioning.


Overall, findings underline the importance of addressing individual and contextual variables when studying bullying and moral disengagement among early adolescents.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4


  1. Aiken, L. S., & West, S. G. (1991). Multiple Regression: Testing and interpreting interactions. Newbury Park: Sage.

  2. Baiocco, R., Cacioppo, M., Laghi, L., & Tafà, M. (2013). Factorial and construct validity of FACES IV among Italian adolescents. Journal of Children and Family Studies, 22, 962–970. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10826-012-9658-1.

  3. Bandura, A. (1999). Moral disengagement in the perpetration of inhumanities. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 3, 193–209. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15327957pspr0303_3.

  4. Bandura, A., Barbaranelli, C., Caprara, G. V., & Pastorelli, C. (1996). Mechanisms of moral disengagement in the exercise of moral agency. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71, 364–374. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.71.2.364.

  5. Barchia, K., & Bussey, K. (2011). Individual and collective social influences on peer aggression: exploring the contribution of aggression efficacy, moral disengagement and collective efficacy. Aggressive Behavior, 37, 107–120. https://doi.org/10.1002/ab.20375.

  6. Baron, R. M., & Kenny, D. A. (1986). The moderator–mediator variable distinction in social psychological research: Conceptual, strategic, and statistical considerations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51, 1173–1182. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.51.6.1173.

  7. Bender, D., & Lösel, F. (2011). Bullying at school as a predictor of delinquency, violence and other anti-social behavior in adulthood. Criminal Behaviour & Mental Health, 21, 99–106. https://doi.org/10.1002/cbm.799.

  8. Bollmer, J. M., Harris, M. J., & Milich, R. (2006). Reactions to bullying and peer victimization: narratives, physiological arousal and personality. Journal of Research in Personality, 40, 803–828. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jrp.2005.09.003.

  9. Bowes, L., Maughan, B., Caspi, A., Moffitt, T. E., & Arsenault, L. (2010). Families promote emotional and behavioral resilience to bullying: evidence of an environmental effect. Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry, 51, 809–817. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-7610.2010.02216.x.

  10. Caprara, G. V., Alessandri, G., Tisak, M. S., Paciello, M., Caprara, M. G., Gerbino, M., & Fontaine, R. G. (2012). Individual differences in personality conducive to engagement in aggression and violence. European Journal of Personality, 27, 290–303. https://doi.org/10.1002/per.1855.

  11. Caprara, G. V., Gerbino, M., Perinelli, M., Alessandri, G., Lenti, C., Walder, M., & Nobile, M. (2017). Individual differences in personality associated with aggressive behavior among adolescents referred for externalizing behavior problems. Journal of Psychopathology & Behavioral Assessment, 39, 680–692. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10862-017-9608-8.

  12. Caprara, G. V., Tisak, M., Alessandri, G., Fontaine, R. G., Fida, R., & Paciello, M. (2014). The contribution of moral disengagement in mediating individual tendencies toward aggression and violence. Developmental Psychology, 50, 71–85. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0034488.

  13. Caravita, S. C. S., Gini, G., & Pozzoli, T. (2012). Main and moderated effect of moral cognition and status on bullying and defending. Aggressive Behavior, 38, 456–468. https://doi.org/10.1002/ab.21447.

  14. Connolly, I., & O’ Moore, M. (2003). Personality and family relations of children who bully. Personality & Individual Differences, 35, 559–567. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0191-8869(02)00218-0.

  15. De Angelis, G., Bacchini, D., & Affuso, G. (2016). The mediating role of domain judgement in the relation between the Big Five and bullying behaviours. Personality & Individual Differences, 90, 16–21. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2015.10.029.

  16. Di Blas, L., Serafino, F., & De Fruyt, F. (2012). La versione italiana del Hierarchical Personality Inventory for Children (HiPIC). Contributo alla validazione e taratura. [The Italian Version of the Hierarchical Personality Inventory for Children (HiPIC). A contribution to its validation and calibration]. Età Evolutiva, 82, 41–53.

  17. Espelage, D. L., & Swearer, S. M. (2010). A social-ecological model for bullying prevention and intervention: understanding the impact of adults in the social ecology of youngsters. In S. R. Jimerson, S. M. Swearer & D. L. Espelage (Eds), Handbook of bullying in schools: An international perspective (pp. 61–72). New York: Routledge.

  18. Field. A. (2017). Discovering statistics using IBM SPSS Statistics. 5th Edition, London: Sage Publications.

  19. Gini, G., Pozzoli, T., & Bussey, K. (2015). The role of individual and collective moral disengagement in peer aggression and bystanding: a multilevel analysis. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 43, 441–452. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10802-014-9920-7.

  20. Hyde, L. W., Shaw, D. S., & Moilanen, K. L. (2010). Developmental precursors of moral disengagement and the role of moral disengagement in the development of antisocial behavior. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 38, 197–209. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10802-009-9358-5.

  21. Inchley, J., Currie, D., Young, T., Samdal, O., Torsheim, T., Augustson, L., Mathison, F., Aleman-Diaz, A., Molcho, M., Weber, M., & Barnekow, V. (Eds) (2016). Growing up unequal: gender and socio-economic differences in young people’s health and well-being. Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) study: International report from the 2013/2014 survey. Copenhagen: WHO Regional Office for Europe (Health Policy for Children and Adolescents, No. 7).

  22. Jaccard, J., Wan, C. K., & Turrisi, R. J. (1990). The detection and interpretation of interaction effects between continuous variables in multiple regression. Multivariate Behavioral Research, 25, 467–478. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15327906mbr2504_4.

  23. Kochanska, G. (2002). Committed compliance, moral self and internalization: a mediation model. Developmental Psychology, 38, 339–351. https://doi.org/10.1037/0012-1649.38.3.339.

  24. Kohnstamm G.A., Halverson C.F., Mervielde I., & Havill, V.L. (1998). Parental descriptions of child personality: Developmental antecedents of the Big Five? Mahwah: LEA.

  25. Kokkinos, C. M., Voulgaridou, I., & Markos, A. (2016). Personality and relational aggression: moral disengagement and friendship quality as mediators. Personality and Individual Differences, 95, 74–79. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2016.02.028.

  26. Menesini, E., & Camodeca, M. (2008). Shame and guilt as behavior regulators: relationships with bullying, victimization and prosocial behavior. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 26, 183–196. https://doi.org/10.1348/026151007X205281.

  27. Menesini, E., Camodeca, M., & Nocentini, A. (2010). Bullying among siblings: the role of personality and relational variables. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 28, 921–939. https://doi.org/10.1348/026151009X479402.

  28. Menesini, E., Camodeca, M., & Nocentini, A. (2013). Morality, values, traditional bullying, and cyberbullying in adolescence. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 31, 1–14. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.2044-835X.2011.02066.x.

  29. Mervielde, I., De Fruyt, F. (1999). Construction of the Hierarchical Personality Inventory for Children (HiPIC). In I. Mervielde, I. Deary, F. De Fruyt, F. Ostendorf (Eds), Personality psychology in Europe (vol. 7, pp.107–127). Tilburg: Tilburg University Press.

  30. Mitsopoulou, E., & Giovazolias, T. (2015). Personality traits, empathy and bullying behavior: a meta-analytic approach. Aggression & Violent Behavior, 21, 61–72. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.avb.2015.01.007.

  31. Mulvey, K.L., Gönültaş, S., Goff, E., Irdam, G., Carlson, R., DiStefano, C., & Irvin, M.J. (2018, online first). School and family factors predicting adolescent cognition regarding bystander intervention in response to bullying and victim retaliation. Journal of Youth and Adolescence. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10964-018-0941-3

  32. Murphy, T. P., Laible, D., & Augustine, M. (2017). The influences of parent and peer attachment on bullying. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 26, 1388–1397. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10826-017-0663-2.

  33. Nickerson, A. B., Mele, D., & Princiotta, D. (2008). Attachment and empathy as predictors of roles as defenders or outsiders in bullying interactions. Journal of School Psychology, 46, 687–703. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jsp.2008.06.002.

  34. Oh, I., & Hazler, R. (2009). Contributions of personal and situational factors to bystanders’ reactions to school bullying. School Psychology International, 30, 291–310. https://doi.org/10.1177/0143034309106499.

  35. Olson, D. H. (2011). FACES IV and the Circumplex Model: validation study. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 3, 64–80. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1752-0606.2009.00175.x.

  36. Olson, D. H., Sprenkle, D. H., & Russell, C. S. (1979). Circumplex Model of family system: cohesion and adaptability dimensions, family types and clinical application. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 16, 187–189. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1545-5300.1979.00003.x.

  37. Olweus, D. (1993). Bullying at school: What we know and what we can do. Cambridge: Blackwell.

  38. önder, C., & Yurtal, F. (2008). An investigation of the family characteristics of bullies, victims and positively behaving adolescents. Educational Sciences, 8, 821–832.

  39. Palmer, S. B., Rutland, A., & Cameron, L. (2015). The development of bystander intentions and social-moral reasoning about intergroup verbal aggression. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 33, 419–433. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjdp.12092.

  40. Perren, S., Gutzwiller-Helfenfinger, E., Malti, T., & Hymel, S. (2012). Moral reasoning and emotion attribution of adolescent bullies, victims and bullies-victims. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 30, 511–530. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.2044-835X.2011.02059.x.

  41. Pozzoli, T., & Gini, G. (2010). Active defending and passive bystanding in bullying: the role of personal characteristics and perceived peer pressure. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 38, 815–827. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10802-010-9399-9.

  42. Pozzoli, T., Gini, G., & Vieno., A. (2012). The role of individual correlates and class norms in defending and passive bystanding behavior in bullying: a multilevel analysis. Child Development, 83, 1917–1931. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8624.2012.01831.x.

  43. Pronk, J., Olthof, T., & Goossens, F. A. (2015). Differential personality correlates of early adolescents’ bullying-related outsider and defender behavior. The Journal of Early Adolescence, 11, 1–23. https://doi.org/10.1177/0272431614549628.

  44. Raine, A. (2002). Biosocial studies of antisocial and violent behavior in children and adults: a review. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 30, 311–326. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1015754122318.

  45. Rigby, K. (2016). Consequences of bullying in schools. The Canadian. Journal of Psychiatry, 48, 583–590. https://doi.org/10.1177/070674370304800904.

  46. Rivers, I., Poteat, V. P., Noret, N., & Ashurst, N. (2009). Observing bullying at school: the mental health implications of witness status. School Psychology Quarterly, 24, 221–233. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0018164.

  47. Salmivalli, C., Lagerspetz, K., Björkqvist, K., Österman, K., & Kaukiainen, A. (1996). Bullying as a group process: participant roles and their relations to social status within the group. Aggressive Behavior, 22, 1–15. https://doi.org/10.1002/(SICI)1098-2337(1996)22:1<1::AID-AB1>3.0.CO;2-T.

  48. Salmivalli, C., & Voeten, M. (2004). Connections between attitudes, group norms, and behaviour in bullying situations. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 28, 246–258. https://doi.org/10.1080/01650250344000488.

  49. Shiner, R., & Caspi, A. (2003). Personality differences in childhood and adolescence: measurement, development and consequences. Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry, 44, 2–32. https://doi.org/10.1111/1469-7610.00101.

  50. Spriggs, A. L., Iannotti, R. J., Nansel, T. R., & Haynie, D. L. (2007). Adolescents bullying involvement and perceived family, peer and schools relations: commonalities and differences across race/ethnicity. Journal of Adolescent Health, 41, 283–293. https://doi.org/10.1016/2Fj.jadohealth.2007.04.009.

  51. Stevens, V., Bourdeaudhuij, I., & van Oost, P. (2002). Relationship of the family environment to children’s involvement in bully/victim problems at school. Journal of Youth & Adolescence, 31, 419–428. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1020207003027.

  52. Swearer, S. M., & Doll, B. (2001). Bullying in schools. Journal of Emotional Abuse, 2, 7–23. https://doi.org/10.1300/J135v02n02_02.

  53. Tani, F., Greenman, P. S., Schneider, B. H., & Fregoso, M. (2003). Bullying and the big five. A study of childhood personality and participant roles in bullying incidents. School Psychology International, 24, 131–147. https://doi.org/10.1177/0143034303024002001.

  54. Valdés-Cuervo, A. A., Alcántar-Nieblas, C., Martínez-Ferrer, B., & Parra-Pérez, L. (2018). Relations between restorative parental discipline, family climate, parental support, empathy, shame and defenders in bullying. Children & Youth Services Review, 95, 152–159. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.childyouth.2018.10.015.

  55. Volk, A. A., Schiralli, K., Xia, X., Zhao, J., & Dane, A. V. (2018). Adolescent bullying and personality: a cross-cultural approach. Personality and Individual Differences, 125, 126–132. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2018.01.012.

  56. Vollrath, M. E., Hampson, S. E., & Jùliusson, P. B. (2012). Children and eating: personality and gender are associated with obesogenic food consumption and overweight in 6 to 12 year-olds. Appetite, 58, 1113–1117. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2012.02.056.

  57. Waasdorp, T. E., & Bradshaw, C. P. (2018). Examining variation in adolescent bystanders’ responses to bullying. School Psychology Review, 47, 18–33. https://doi.org/10.17105/SPR-2017-0081.V47-1.

  58. Wang, C., Ryoo, H. J., Swearer, S. M., Turner, R., & Goldberg, T. S. (2016). Longitudinal relationships between bullying and moral disengagement among adolescents. Journal of Youth & Adolescence, 46, 1304–1317. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10964-016-0577-0.

  59. White, F. A., & Metawie, K. M. (2004). Parental morality and Family processes as predictors of adolescent morality. Journal of Child & Family Studies, 13, 219–233. https://doi.org/10.1023/B:JCFS.0000015709.81116.ce.

Download references

Author Contributions

AM contributed to the design of the study, collected the data, drafted the theoretical sections and contributed to the literature review, interpretation of results, and writing of the paper. MC contributed to the design of the study, performed the analyses, drafted the Results sections, and contributed to the interpretation of findings and writing of the paper. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

Author information

Correspondence to Angela Mazzone.

Ethics declarations

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical Approval

All procedures performed in this study were in accordance with the ethical standards of the Italian Association of Psychology (AIP) and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed Consent

Informed consent was obtained from all participants included in the study.

Additional information

Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Mazzone, A., Camodeca, M. Bullying and Moral Disengagement in Early Adolescence: Do Personality and Family Functioning Matter?. J Child Fam Stud 28, 2120–2130 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10826-019-01431-7

Download citation


  • Bullying
  • Defending
  • Outsider
  • Moral disengagement
  • Personality
  • Family functioning