When Does Teasing Go Too Far?

Pro-social and anti-social teasing in the locker room

Posted Nov 25, 2013

by Amy Luckner, Ph.D., guest contributor

Richie Incognito (Miami Dolphins offensive lineman) and Donovan McNabb (former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback) don’t think that they are bullies. In fact, they appear surprised, even shocked, at the allegations of bullying that have been thrown their way. Other players seem similarly surprised and report that these behaviors are just good-natured teasing that come from "a place of love" (as Incognito reported) and are part of the locker room culture. Clearly, however, Jonathan Martin and Shawn Andrews see the situation differently.

It all begs the question: When does teasing go too far?

Although we sometimes think of teasing as the slightly less evil twin of bullying, there are actually both good and bad types of teasing (Barnett, Burns, Sanborn, Bartel, & Wilds, 2004; Mills & Carwile, 2009). Good teasing, or what some researchers call pro-social teasing, is playful banter that is meant to express affection or affiliation. Good-natured ribbing between co-hosts on a sports show could fall under this category.

Pro-social teasing has a lot of benefits. It can be used to establish and maintain friendships, to express affection and resolve conflict with romantic partners, and to promote bonding and affiliation among a group of people, including colleagues in an office and players on a sports team (Keltner, Capps, Kring, Young, & Heerey, 2001; Keltner, Young, Heerey, Oemig, & Monarch, 1998; Turman, 2003).

Bad (or anti-social) teasing includes hostile or aggressive behavior that is meant to hurt, humiliate, or harass someone. Aggressive insults between fans of different teams could fall under this category of teasing. As you might expect, this type of teasing is one of the most common forms of bullying. It can lead to lowered self-esteem, interpersonal difficulties, anxiety, and depression, and can erode group cohesion in a work or team environment (Barnett et al., 2004; Keltner et al., 2001; Mills & Carwile, 2009; Turman, 2003).

This might seem pretty straightforward. Pro-social teasing is good; antisocial teasing is bad. But teasing is more complex than a simple good versus evil distinction. A lot of teasing is ambiguous. It can be difficult to tell whether a tease is pro-social or anti-social (or somewhere in between), even when the teaser thinks that his or her intent is clear.

And whether the tease is good or bad might also be in the eye of the receiver. In general, people who are being teased view teases as more negative than the teasers do (Kruger, Gordon, & Kuban, 2006). How individuals interpret the teases they receive also depends on their gender, personality, popularity, and previous experiences with teasing (Bollmer, Harris, Milich, & Georgesen, 2003; Keltner et al., 1998; Newman & Murray, 2005).

Culture also plays an important role in how teasing is perceived. For example, Campos and colleagues (2007) found in their study that Asian Americans viewed teasing as having more positive and affiliative intent than European Americans did. The researchers suggest that individuals from cultures that prioritize group harmony over self-differentiation are more likely to see the potential relational benefits of teasing.

In addition, the culture of the peer group also influences how teasing is viewed. Teasing norms vary across different peer groups, and the type of teasing that is playful and pro-social in one group may not be seen that way in another group (or by an outsider).

So when does teasing go too far?

Regardless of group norms, pro-social teasing can go too far and cross the line into anti-social teasing, even if the intent is playful. One aspect that may automatically cause a tease to cross the line, so to speak, is the topic. There appears to be some consensus that certain topics are unacceptable for teasing, including appearance, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, race, and other things that the receiver can’t control. (Aronson et al., 2007). (I would include murder and rape on that list as well, although they weren’t included in the study.)

And, of course, pro-social teasing can cross the line if it is not perceived as pro-social by the person being teased. Just as it is important for teammates to read each other on the field to determine the success of a play, it is also important off the field to determine the success of a teasing interaction. A tease that crosses the line, intentionally or not, has the potential not only to harm the receiver, but also to harm the cohesion of the group.

We have to be careful, though, as we move forward in our attempts to keep teasing from going too far in the locker room that we don’t get rid of the good teasing (with all of its affiliative and group-bonding powers) with the bad. And as part of our efforts, it is also important to consider how we can teach our kids, the NFLers of tomorrow, how to tease for good and not for evil—and how to tell the difference.

Amy Luckner is an assistant professor of psychology at Northern Illinois University. She is in the School Psychology Program and teaches courses in child development, consultation, and professional issues in school psychology. Her research focuses on children’s aggressive and playful peer behavior, school engagement, and student-teacher relationships.


Aronson, E., Biegler, H., Bond, B., Clark, R. A., Drogos, K., Garcia, M. A., et al. (2007). Norms for teasing among college students. Communication Research Reports, 24, 169_176.

Barnett, M. A., Burns, S. R., Sanborn, F.W., Bartel, J. S., &Wilds, S. J. (2004). Antisocial and prosocial teasing among children: Perceptions and individual differences. Social Development, 13, 292–310.

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Keltner, D., Capps, L., Kring, A. M., Young, R. C., & Heerey, E. A. (2001). Just teasing: A conceptual analysis and empirical review. Psychological Bulletin, 127, 229–248.

Keltner, D., Young, R. C., Heerey, E. A., Oemig, C., & Monarch, N. D. (1998). Teasing in hierarchical and intimate relations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 1231–1247.

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