ISSN 0439-755X
CN 11-1911/B

Acta Psychologica Sinica ›› 2021, Vol. 53 ›› Issue (2): 170-181.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1041.2021.00170

• Reports of Empirical Studies • Previous Articles     Next Articles

Healthy Context Paradox in the Association Between Bullying Victimization and Externalizing Problems: The Mediating Role of Hostile Attribution Bias

LIU Xiaowei, PAN Bin, CHEN Liang, LI Tengfei, JI Linqin, ZHANG Wenxin()   

  1. Research Institute of Child and Adolescent Development, School of Psychology, Shandong Normal University, Jinan 250014, China
  • Received:2020-05-12 Published:2021-02-25 Online:2020-12-29
  • Contact: ZHANG Wenxin
  • Supported by:
    Ministry of education's major research projects in philosophy and Social Sciences(17JZD058);NSFC(31860280);NSFC(31971008)


Bullying victimization represents the experience of being the target of aggression by one or several peers while not being able to defend oneself. This phenomenon has a high prevalence among children and youth, approximately 32% for school-aged children across the world being bullied by their class- or school-mates. Exposure to bullying victimization puts children at risk for a variety of social-psychological maladjustment, both internalizing and externalizing. However, the likelihood of victimization leading to maladjustment might vary across contexts. Recent research found that victims were more likely to be maladjusted in relatively healthier contexts (i.e. classrooms with low overall levels of victimization) - a phenomenon that has been referred to as the “healthy context paradox (HCP)”. Specifically, extant studies found that victimized children were more likely to exhibit internalizing problems in classrooms with low levels of victimization. However, little is known about whether classroom-level victimization moderates the link between bullying victimization and externalizing problems.
More importantly, no empirical study has specifically examined the underlying mechanisms of HCP. According to the social information processing theory and existing studies, it is reasonable to assume that in relatively healthier contexts, victimized children are more likely to feel targeted by peers and develop a hostile attribution bias, which in turn leads to more externalizing problems. Therefore, hostile attribution bias, a tendency to attribute hostile intent to another person in ambiguous and even neutral situations, can be a potential mechanism explaining the paradoxical effect of classroom-level victimization on victim's externalizing behaviors.
The present study examined whether classroom-level victimization moderated such victimization-externalizing associations, and further examined the mediating role of children’s hostile attribution bias in the associations. The sample comprised 1764 fifth- to eighth- graders (956 boys, Mage = 14.46) from 47 classes in 5 schools in Shandong, China. Bullying victimization was assessed via the Olweus Bully/Victim Questionnaire. Hostile attribution bias was measured through the Assessment of Intent Attributions for Ambiguous Provocation Situation. Externalizing problems were assessed on the Child Behavior Checklist-Youth Self-Report (CBCL-YSR). Classroom-level victimization was calculated by averaging individual bullying victimization scores for each classroom. All measures had good reliability and validity. Multi-level structural equation models were conducted to test the hypothesis.
The results revealed that: (1) after controlling for sex, parental education, grade, and class size, classroom-level victimization moderated the association between bullying victimization and externalizing problems, such that the victimization-externalizing association was stronger in classrooms with a lower level of victimization compared with those in the classrooms with a higher level of victimization; and (2) low levels of classroom-level victimization strengthened victims' hostile attribution bias, which in turn was associated with externalizing problems.
The present study has two major strengths. First, we extended the literature on the healthy context paradox by examining the role of classroom-level victimization in the victimization-externalizing association. In line with the hypothesis regarding the healthy context paradox, victimized children were more likely to exhibit externalizing problems in classrooms with a low level of victimization. Second, a mechanism regarding the healthy context paradox was identified, such that low classroom-level victimization had an impact on victims’ externalizing problems by increasing their hostile attribution bias. These findings highlight the importance of concentrating on specific victims and providing help for them in prevention/intervention practices. Specifically, to alleviate victims’ maladjustment, teachers and school counselors could take efforts to reduce their hostile attribution. Future studies would benefit from replicating these findings using a longitudinal design, and multiple informants to assess externalizing problems. Moreover, future studies need to test more possible explanations for the healthy context paradox.

Key words: healthy context paradox, externalizing problems, classroom victimization, hostile attribution bias