Uriel Abulof Ph.D.



Bullying: Why Does It Work? How Can We Fight It?

What a bully does best is to tap straight into our fears and insecurities.

Posted Oct 05, 2020

You are ugly and stupid, everything you do is rotten. That’s why nobody loves you, nobody even likes you. You think you have friends. You don’t. They all lie to your ugly face. You’re nothing.

How do you feel? Did I hurt you, even just a bit? Perhaps I did – and for that, I’m sorry. But why would you hurt because of my words? Think about it – it makes no sense at all. You don’t know me, I don’t know you. I didn’t even look at you – in fact, if I was looking at anything, it’s a lens; if I was looking at anyone, I was actually looking at my own reflection, saying those hateful words to myself.

And yet, it may have hurt you. And it hurt you not only because at that very brief moment you were hardly thinking, just feeling; it’s also because you too may have, at some points in your life, been thinking negative things about yourself. Perhaps not so severe, perhaps not often – at least I hope not. But such fears, deep doubts about our worth, always lurk, laying the groundwork for the bullies, who are even more destructive if they can actually claim to know us.

From George Grantham Bain Collection. Image available at the U.S. Library of Congress. Digital ID cph.3b44982 Public Domain
Combined pillory and whipping post in New Castle County Jail, Delaware, 1907
Source: From George Grantham Bain Collection. Image available at the U.S. Library of Congress. Digital ID cph.3b44982 Public Domain

What a bully does best is to tap straight into these fears and insecurities. Bullies sense these weaknesses, our vulnerabilities, and attack.

We know why. Bullies want to control others because of their own insecurities, about themselves, and about the world. They find strength in weakening others, turning humans into playthings. Humiliation is especially instrumental here. We know that well in private – but in public too, thus, for example, the use of public whipping and pillory as legal punishment.

The world, to bullies, is a zero-sum game, of winners and losers, of predators and prey: either hunt or be hunted. Do we sometimes feel, and think, the same? Does our sense of self-worth depend more on people who hardly, truly, know us, than upon ourselves? If so, perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised that bullies get to us.

Suppose we flip the coin.

You are beautiful, and smart, everything you do is wonderful. That’s why everybody likes you, even loves you, why you have so many friends. You’re the best.

Does it make more sense? It shouldn’t. I still know nothing about you. And yet, if you believe the many feel-good people out there, telling you such niceties, here too you pave the path for bullies.

Bullying is personal – and political. Some politicians, some powerful leaders, are bullies, in and outside the cyberspace. You have heard their hateful speech, saw how they spot the vulnerabilities of their political rivals – whom they regard as enemies – then sink their sharp rhetorical teeth, and bite until they bleed.

Bullying can be horrifying, but we can learn to be brave, learn about the darker parts of the human soul so we can realize – both understand and live up to – the best in us.


Cohen-Almagor, Raphael. (2015) Confronting the Internet's Dark Side: Moral and Social Responsibility on the Free Highway. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Hinduja, Sameer, and Justin W. Patchin. (2010) Bullying, Cyberbullying, and Suicide. Archives of Suicide Research 14:206-21.

Smith, Peter K. (2019) The Psychology of School Bullying. New York, NY: Routledge.

Staub, Ervin. (2003) The Psychology of Good and Evil: Why Children, Adults, and Groups Help and Harm Others. New York: Cambridge University Press.