Far from being stupid, oafish and lacking in social skills, "cold, effective bullies" tended to be more capable of understanding other people's minds than other children and were highly manipulative, according to Jon Sutton, a researcher at Goldsmiths College, south London. But with the right kind of channelling, he said, these skills could be put to legitimate use, and bullies could become successful in future life.
Mr Sutton added that anti-bullying strategies, used by many schools, may actually make matters worse by training bullies to be more efficient manipulators of their victims.
With his colleague Professor Peter Smith, Mr Sutton examined 72 children aged between seven and 10 from three schools in south-east London. The children were given stories designed to probe their cognitive and emotional understanding. Scores were obtained depending on their answers to questions about the stories.
"What we generally found was that the bullies scored highly, but not when it came to emotions," said Mr Sutton. He added that a high level of skill in understanding and manipulating the minds of others, without emotional input could be "a very frightening prospect in a school environment".
But he maintained that used properly, the skills bullies had could help them in future life. "In some respects bullies may be superior to other children," he said. "Someone who can understand people's minds and manipulate them in this way would make a very good manager at most levels. It would be interesting to give a group of managers a questionnaire and find out if any of them were bullies at school."
He said bullies were statistically four times more likely than other children to become criminals, but while psychopaths also had "cold cognition" this did not mean that bullies necessarily had psychopathic tendencies. Like bullies, psychopaths failed to respond to other people's feelings, but this was because of a lack of empathy, not a lack of understanding.
Mr Sutton said present anti-bullying strategies may do more harm than good. Helping the bully have a better understanding of his victim may be misguided and could even help to make the situation worse. "Bullies are already very good at understanding their victim and using this approach could make them even better bullies," he said.
One way would be to make more of the "defenders", children who stood up for the victims of bullying and who are often very popular members of the class. "It would seem a good idea to empower that silent majority to break the circle of bullying," said Mr Sutton.