“Remember always that you not only have the right to be an individual, you have an obligation to be one.” –Eleanor Roosevelt
Anyone who has ever made it through their childhood relatively unscathed is well aware of the bullying phenomenon. All of us, at one time or another, have found ourselves with the opportunity of standing up to the school yard bully, and how we respond to that opportunity can have a lasting impact on our self worth. Years after a bullying incident, the bullied child will look back on that episode with the yardstick of their response. For instance, standing up to that school yard persecutor can help fortify the image of self respect that is so critical in the formation of a strong individual, while the memories of the bully’s cruel jibes, and mean taunts, can impact the way the adult functions emotionally years after an event. It is only through hindsight that the motives and actions of the bully are questioned, and after seeing what factors help make a bully, that insight will help take the power away from the school yard, or office miscreant.
The Psychology of Bullying
Ever since the first caveman realized he could excite a response from a smaller caveman for his own personal amusement, the act of bullying has been a force that has been had to be reckoned with. Not only have bullies and their victims existed since the beginnings of human interaction, with advances in technology, the ability to project that anti-social behavior, across thousands of miles in the blink of an eye, means that no one is immune from the capricious effects of bullying. Indeed, the advent of the internet has ushered in an entirely new vehicle for bullying: the internet.
Regardless of the medium however, the root causes of bullying lie deep in the psyche of the bully, and whether it’s taunts thrown across the playground, mean-spirited jibes in the conference room, or mean thoughts slipped into a private message on the internet, the motivations and actions of all bullies share certain commonalities.
Bullies tend to act in a certain ways, and draw upon specific stimuli that reinforce their tendencies towards abhorrent behavior. Bullies behave in a dominate manner, and lash out at others for the bad things that are happening in their lives. While the instinct to bully is a learned behavior, genetics also plays a role in the nature vs. nurture argument to explain the bullying phenomenon.
As an example, violent and aggressive urges may be more prevalent among certain people than others, but not all of those people will necessarily succumb to those urges. Those who don’t act out in that manner have found healthy and constructive avenues in which to vent their hostility in positive ways.
Finally, many bullies are attention seekers, and revel in the attention, even though it is negative attention, that attaches itself to their behavior. Inmuch the same way that the ignored child will act out on the assumption that negative attention is better than no attention, the bully will seek the spotlight with their behavior.
Bullying can take on many forms and casts, but regardless of how it materializes; the effects can be devastating on the victim. While extreme cases of bullying have resulted in the ultimate tragedy of suicide, even less extreme instances can have a lasting effect on the victim, which might require years of coping skills to ameliorate the devastating impact that bullying can have on a person.
Bullying can assume many guises, but generally can be broken down into four types of categories: physical, verbal, intimidation, and cyber bullying.
Physical Bullying—any type of physical force, which is used with the design to coerce an action from the victim is bullying. Whether the bully beats his victim up, or trips them as they make their way down the hallway to their next class, physical bullying is the same, and accounts for 30% of all school bullying.
Verbal Bullying—comprising 46% of all reported bullying, verbal clashes can do as much damage, if not worse, than a physical attack. Typically, this form of bullying takes on the form of teasing, name calling, making fun of others, and threats of escalation into violence. Conversely, the silent treatment, practiced primarily among girls, socially isolates the victim from all their other peers, and drives the target into depression.
Intimidation—termed extortion when practiced by adults, intimidation is a form of bullying designed to get something from the victim. Whether it is the victim’s proverbial lunch money, or a concession to do the bully’s homework, intimidation uses threats of violence, or exposure unless the bully’s demands are met.
Cyber bullies—while an altercation on the school yard can be met with resolute force, an anonymous email seething with hate is less easy to respond to in a healthy manner. It is for this reason that cyber-bullying is so insidious. That fact, coupled to the ubiquitous nature of social media, makes it hard for the victim of a cyber-bully attack to not slip into feelings of isolation and depression.
As mentioned, regardless of the medium however, bullying has risen to epidemic proportions in recent years, and understanding what makes a bully be a bully is the first step in arming yourself against their depredations.
To simply dismiss the phenomenon of bullying with the thought that the world is comprised of some mean-spirited people, fails to arrive at an understanding of what causes that abhorrent behavior in the first place. Since the goal is to eradicate bullying, placing the correct cause to the action is necessary prior to targeting ways of ameliorating the practice. Generally speaking, five factors may well influence whether or not someone decides to resort to bullying to attain their life goals: Cultural, institutional, social, family, and personal history.
- Cultural influences have the tendency to desensitize people to violence. Whether it is glorifying the World Wrestling Federation in the name of entertainment, or the society places a heavy value on strength, power and winning, it is a small step to applying those principles to their daily interactions.
- The institutions that make up our society can play a large role in the development of a bully. For instance, unless those institutions take a firm stance against bullying, the practice will be allowed to fester and grow. This fact is true whether the bullying is taking place in the home, school, or workplace. It is this recognition that has led to the formation of zero-tolerance policies in schools across the nation as they attempt to stem the tide of bullying.
- We live in a society that rewards bad behavior with tabloid cover stories and lucrative book deals. The bully in the back row in class has made the connection that if they act out that they will get the attention they so obviously crave. Jealousy, envy, and a lack of interpersonal communication skills might also prompt the nascent bully to act out.
- Families that lack the ability to communicate openly, and eschew a warm and loving environment might well be a breeding ground for future bullies. Additionally, as bullying is a learned habit, many of those habits are learned behind closed doors hidden from societies censure. As such, the bully emerges from that environment with a skewed sense of appropriate behavior.
- Irrevocably tied to the bully’s behavior is the personal history of the individual. Children who suffer social rejection are for more likely to “pay it forward” in terms of lashing out at others who they perceive as weaker, and more vulnerable to attack. Similarly, students who fail academically in the classroom are also more likely to compensate through bullying tactics on the playground.
“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” –Eleanor Roosevelt
When one puts a face to the causes of bullying, society as a whole is better equipped to deal with the phenomenon. Early education is the key to successfully ending bullying. As such, schools are on the frontlines in this battle with elementary school curriculums that focus on social problem-solving skills that can lead to healthier ways to resolve disputes and allow your voices to be heard. No one wants to raise a bully, nor does anyone want their child victimized by a bully. Only through concerted action, and an understanding of the root causes that leads to bullying, can we begin to address this growing national tragedy.