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Keywords:

  • bullying;
  • moral development;
  • perspective taking

Abstract

The present study tested the hypothesis of the cognitively competent but morally insensitive bully. On the basis of teacher and peer ratings, 212 young elementary school children were selected and categorized as bullies, bully–victims, victims, and prosocial children. Children's perspective-taking skills were assessed using theory-of-mind tasks, and moral motivation was assessed with a task about moral emotion attributions after moral rule transgressions. Analyses at the group level revealed that only bully–victims, but not bullies, were characterized by a deficit in perspective taking, while both aggressive groups showed a deficit in moral motivation. Analyses at the individual level, however, revealed that bullies were a more heterogeneous group, including children with an asymmetry between perspective taking and moral motivation, as well as children scoring consistently low or high on both measures. The findings highlight the importance of distinguishing between (1) strategic social–cognitive and moral competencies and (2) different subgroups of bullies.