WHICH IS IMPORTANT: INTENT OR IMPACT?
The Role of "Intent" and "Impact" in Classical,
Scientific, and Statutory Definitions of Bullying, and
Relevance for Preventing and Responding to Bullying

Note: If this is the first page you are viewing in the "Definition of Bullying" section of this website, you might also be interested in discussions of the problematic distinction between conflict and bullying, and the controversial concept of "power imbalance," and if you are interested in definitions of bullying under New Jersey law, you might want to read the overview page for the ABR segment or the overview page for the "Definition of Bullying" section.

When a student engages in behavior that is hurtful to another student, to what extent should the intent of the offending student (the actor) be taken into account, and to what extent should the harmful impact on the targeted student (the target) be taken into account?  The answer is that both should be taken into account, but for very different reasons and purposes.  One source of confusion over the relative importance and purpose of intent and impact is the fact that the classical (scientific) definition of bullying focuses on the intent of the actor, whereas the reason bullying is considered a social problem is because of the potential impact of bullying on the target, and, in New Jersey, the ABR definition of HIB focuses on the reasonable expectation of what the impact would be on a target.

Click on each of the titles below for discussions of the importance of intent and impact from classical, scientific, historical, and statutory perspectives, and/or read the "Conclusions" below for recommendations on the appropriate ways to take intent and impact into account when responding to bullying situations.

Classical Understanding of Bullying: Intent Matters Click here for information

The term bullying” had a meaning for students, parents, and school personnel long  before New Jersey instituted a statute that defined bullying and required schools to address it.  Under this “common sense” or “classical” definition of bullying, a student who innocently said or did something that hurt another student, and who felt sorry when they found out that they had hurt the other student, would not be considered a “bully.” This student made a mistake; this student did not bully.  On the other hand, a student who purposefully hurt another student might be said to have “bullied” the other student.  The difference is one of intent; the student who did not intend to hurt made a mistake, whereas the student who did intend to hurt was bullying.  The difference in intent leads to different perceptions of culpability, and therefore to differences in how adults should respond to the student’s hurtful behavior.  Specifically, the student who made a mistake is not culpable; that student made a mistake, is “innocent,” and needs some guidance, rather than discipline.  However, the student who bullied is culpable, or “guilty,” and--although this student, too, might benefit from guidance rather than discipline--discipline is generally considered a legitimate response to “guilt.”

The Olweus Definition of Bullying: Intent and Potential for Harm Matter Click here for information

The common sense, classical focus on the importance of intent is reflected in one of the earliest scientific definitions of bullying, the Olweus definition.  Although the Olweus definition of bullying has been modified by other researchers, and aspects of the Olweus definition of bullying are the subject of controversy within the scientific community, Dr. Olweus' original definition reflects the classical definition of bullying, and forms the basis of contemporary popular understandings of bullying, so it is a good place to start:

A person is bullied when he or she is exposed, repeatedly and over time, to negative actions on the  part of one or more other persons, and he or she has difficulty defending himself or herself.
Expressed in more everyday language one might say: Bullying is when someone repeatedly and on purpose says or does mean or hurtful things to another person who has a hard time defending himself or herself. (1)

In other words, the Olweus definition defines bullying in terms of intent; an act is only bullying if it is done on purpose, i.e., with intent.  (Note: The other elements in this definition, repetition and the inability of the target to defend her or himself, are addressed on different pages in this website).

The Olweus definition does not define bullying in terms of the actual impact on the target.  It defines bullying as “negative actions” or as “mean or hurtful things,” thus presenting “meanness” as a characteristic of the act, and not as an aspect of the impact of the act on the target.  In other words, under the Olweus definition, “a person is bullied when he or she is exposed...to negative actions,” and “bullying is when someone… does mean or hurtful things to another person;" the definition does not say that “a person is bullied when he or she is hurt…” or that “bullying is when someone… hurts another person.”  In other words, it is not the actual impact of the act on the target, but rather the presumed hurtfulness of the act itself that defines the incident as bullying.

The CDC/US DOE "Federal Definition of Bullying": Neither Intent Nor Impact Click here for information

More recently, the “uniform” definition of “bullying” announced by the CDC in 2014, is a scientific definition designed specifically for the purpose of the measurement of bullying among youth for public health and other assessment purposes.  This definition states that:

“Bullying is any unwanted aggressive behavior(s) by another youth or group of youths who are not siblings or current dating partners that involves an observed or perceived power imbalance and is repeated multiple times or is highly likely to be repeated.  Bullying may inflict harm or distress on the targeted youth including physical, psychological, social, or educational harm.” (2)

Although this definition refers to the impact of bullying, it does not define bullying by its impact, because it says that “bullying may inflict…” and not that “bullying does inflict…”  The term “unwanted” is an implicit reference to the state of mind of the target, and one could argue that being subjected to unwanted behavior is an “impact,” but the definition explicitly does not define bullying as a behavior that has a harmful impact on the target. 

Unlike the "common sense" and the Olweus definitions of bullying, this definition does not mention intent. The CDC definition describes bullying as behavior that is repeated or is likely to be repeated, and one might argue that one reason for repetition is the intent of the actor, but the definition makes no explicit reference to the intent of the actor, nor does it specify any particular reason that the behavior would be repeated. Given that the purpose of the CDC definition is to provide guidance in the collection of data on bullying, and such data are often collected based on the self-reports of targets, it would be difficult if not impossible to operationalize a definition that included the intent of the actor as a data element.

History of Public Concern Over Bullying: Impact Matters Click here for information

However, it is the impact of bullying that has caused widespread concern about bullying as a social issue.  It was the death by suicide of three students that first motivated Dr. Olweus’ research into bullying, and it was the tragedy at Columbine High School that first brought the problem of bullying into the collective awareness of the general population in the United States.  The reason we are concerned about bullying as a society, is because of the devastating effects it can have on targets, as well on entire school systems and communities.  Therefore, we tend to focus on the impact of bullying, as the source of the importance of the issue.

The New Jersey Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights: Reasonable Expectation of Harmful Impact Matters, Intent Irrelevant Click here for information

The statutory definition of “Harassment, Intimidation, or Bullying” in New Jersey does not include “intent” as a criterion, and makes this reference to the impact of bullying:

“Harassment, intimidation, or bullying” means… any… act… or … communication….that (a) a reasonable person should know, under the circumstances, will have the effect of physically or emotionally harming a student or damaging the student’s property, or placing a student in reasonable fear of physical or emotional harm…;”

In clause (a), the “reasonable person” standard is invoked, suggesting that the standard is that a behavior is bullying if a reasonable person would expect the behavior to have a harmful impact on the target, not whether the behavior actually does have the harmful impact on the target.  In other words, if a school staff member sees a student behaving in a way that the staff member reasonably perceives is likely to be harmful toward another student, the staff members does not have to determine whether or not the act actually had the harmful impact, in order to determine that the behavior is HIB.  Her/his reasonable expectation that the behavior would harm the target is sufficient.  The fact that the statute uses the future tense “will have” instead of the conditional tense “would have,” might seem to be a reference to actual impact, but unless the intent of the statute was to require school personnel to predict the future accurately, the standard actually stated in the statute appears to be the “reasonable expectation” of harm, not the harm itself. (3)

Arguably, the purpose of the ABR is to stop both harmful and potentially harmful behavior, in order to prevent actual harm.

Conclusion:  Both intent and impact are important, but for very different reasons and purposes. The following are recommendations regarding appropriate ways to take intent and impact into account when responding to bullying situations:

  1. Neither whether the actor had intent, nor whether the act actually had a harmful impact on the target, should be used as a criterion for deciding whether to respond to negative behavior.  Whether the actor had intent or not might inform what response is given, but not whether the behavior is responded to and corrected.  Likewise, whether or not a particular target is actually hurt by the behavior is irrelevant to the question of whether an adult should step in to stop the behavior; if a behavior is potentially harmful, it should be stopped regardless of whether a particular target is hurt by it, and regardless of whether that particular target is acknowledging having been hurt by the act.  Even if the act did not hurt that particular target, it is inappropriate behavior for school and it might hurt the next target, and the failure of adults to intervene would send the message that harmful behavior is OK in some circumstances. 
  2. Whether or not a student acted with intent is a factor to be taken into account by school personnel who are deciding how to respond to the student’s hurtful behavior.  Regardless of whether an incident might qualify as HIB, if a student acted without intent, then a more remedial approach, focused on guidance or education, is probably more appropriate than discipline.  If a student acted with intent to harm, or with disregard for the harm caused to others, then depending on other circumstances, discipline might be an appropriate response.  In all cases, ideally, school personnel should choose a response that is most likely to be effective in the given situation, within the boundaries set by the law and by school policy, and taking all circumstances into account, with one of those circumstances being the intent of the actor.  If an act is HIB, then school personnel must respond to the act, but the type of response made can be chosen based on an understanding of what responses are most likely to be effective, and intent, although it is not a statutory criterion for determining HIB status, can be taken into account in the selection of a response to the incident. (4)
  3. Intent is not relevant in determining whether an incident is statutory HIB, but it is relevant in determining whether an incident is “bullying” in the classical sense.  This is one of the primary discrepancies between the statutory and the classical definitions, and a major source of confusion for school personnel who are attempting to answer the question “is it bullying?” without adequate training in the fact that, in New Jersey, we are working with two very different definitions of bullying.  So, the second grader who hears a racist word on TV and innocently repeats it in school without realizing that it is offensive, has not engaged in bullying, but might have engaged in HIB, and should receive guidance, not discipline, even though ABR reporting and investigation procedures might have to be followed.
  4. Whether the act actually had a demonstrable negative impact on the target is probably not a criterion in determining whether an incident is HIB, as the wording of the law invokes the “reasonable expectation” of harm rather than actual harm. However, the advice of legal counsel should be followed when determining whether an incident meets the criteria for HIB.
  5. Whether the act actually had a negative impact on the target is, generally, not a criterion for determining whether an act constitutes “bullying” in the classical sense.  Negative, repeated behaviors that might cause harm should be considered bullying even in the absence of evidence that actual harm was caused to the target.  As noted above, it is the behavior itself that is wrong and needs to be stopped, regardless of whether it has negatively impacted a particular target.  Furthermore, for practical purposes, a practice of determining whether or not an act caused actual harm to a particular target in order to determine whether the act constitutes bullying, could have several undesirable consequences, including:
    1. Such a practice implies that it is OK to engage in hurtful behavior toward some people, but not others; in particular, that it is OK to engage in hurtful behavior as long as the target does not admit to being hurt by the behavior.
    2. Implicitly makes the target responsible for the consequences that befall the actor; if the target did not claim to be hurt, then the act would not have been considered bullying, and the actor would not have been disciplined for bullying.  In other words, such a practice makes the target responsible for the consequences that befall the actor, which provides bullies with a motive for retaliation, and provides targets with a motivation to avoid acknowledging hurt and seeking adult help to stop their victimization.
  6. So when does actual impact matter?  The impact of bullying is the entire reason for our great concern about bullying, but if the actual impact of a given incident on the target does not matter in determining if an act is HIB, if an act is bullying, nor whether and how the actor should be corrected, for what purpose does the impact of bullying matter?  The impact of an incident on the target should be taken into account when deciding whether, and what type, of support and protection should be offered or made available to the target.  For example, a targeted student who was hurt emotionally, might need counselling as well as reassurance that future incidents will be effectively prevented.  A targeted student who was hurt physically might need medical care.  A targeted student whose reputation was damaged might need counseling and pro-active efforts to eliminate remaining evidence of the damage from the school’s social environment, and a targeted student who was the victim of a crime needs a referral to law enforcement.

(1) www.violencepreventionworks.org

(2) Bullying Surveillance Among Youths: Uniform Definitions for Public Health and Recommended Data Elements, was published in 2014 jointly by the National Center for Injury Prevention and Conrol, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the United States Department of Education (NJ DOE).

(3) Dr. Rodriguez Rust is not an attorney. Information about the ABR provided is not legal counsel or advice. Consult an attorney for ABR interpretation, and before taking any actions that might inpact liability.

(4) Stan Davis discusses the fact that it is often difficult, if not impossible, to know the intent of another person, and emphasizes that "we do better to focus on stopping actions that are likely to harm others rather than only trying to stop actions that we can determine are intended to harm others." http://stopbullyingnow.com/information-about-bullying-overview/