Almost everyone has been bullied at one time or another, and we often take solace in the assumption that living well is the best revenge. We will have happy and fulfilling lives, whereas bullies are trying to compensate for their own low self-esteem and will lead miserable lives.
Unfortunately, all of us who have been or still are victims of bullying have received another slap in the face. More and more research is emerging that bullies may actually lead successful and healthy lives, while victims of bullying are the ones left with physical and emotional problems. Perhaps ironically, this can provide the best insight to understand and stop bullying.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has labeled bullying a major public health problem. Research on bullying – broadly defined as repeated aggressive acts in which there is an imbalance of power between the perpetrator and victim – demonstrates that victims of bullying experience stress-related physical health issues such as head and stomach aches and long-lasting mental health problems in the form of depression, anxiety and, in the most severe cases, suicide.
We are doing what we can to respond to this crisis, with several innovative prevention programs, outstanding advocacy groups, and anti-bullying laws in almost every state. Yet shockingly, studies indicate that problems with bullying are not getting better and in fact may be worsening.
The sad truth may be that for some people, there are significant social and personal benefits to bullying. Research suggests that animals, including humans, experience health benefits associated with higher social status. For example, evidence suggests that among animals such as baboons there is a clear hierarchy; those who dominate others have more control and thus reap rich health rewards in the form of lower stress. Similarly, humans who have more “dominance” in the form of higher social (e.g. socioeconomic) status may have better health and well-being. In this context, bullying can be understood as an extreme version of asserting dominance. Being good at sports is more “pro-social” than pushing someone into a locker, but both aid in asserting dominance.
Research demonstrates that rather than being shunned, bullies are in some cases embraced and their behavior reinforced. Bullies can actually be very popular among their peers. One study that examined nearly 2,000 students at 11 middle schools in Los Angeles conducted surveys in the seventh and eighth grades. The kids ranked which of their peers were “coolest,” which ones “start fights or push other kids around” and which ones “spread nasty rumors about other kids.”
“Coolness” and “aggression” were highly linked; bullies enjoyed the highest social standing among classmates, whereas victims were socially marginalized. This trend, unfortunately, continues as we get older; a recent study found that workplace bullies often have positive job evaluations and are considered highly skilled in work “politics.” Thus, rather than bullies being socially unskilled outcasts, some bullying might actually be helping people ascend the social ladder.
Moreover, just as studies in the animal kingdom demonstrate that being dominant has health benefits, somewhat startling new research suggests that bullies may actually have better health over time. A recent study examined the link between bullying and inflammation, an immune response that has been linked to increased risk for physical health conditions such as coronary heart disease and mental health issues such as depression.
In this study, 1,420 children ages 9-16 were given interviews assessing the frequency of either bullying or being bullied annually until the children were 16, then again at ages 19 and 21. Blood tests were drawn to determine C-reactive protein, a measure of inflammation. Both in the short term and long term, victims of bullying had higher levels of inflammation. Further, at the 19- and 21-year mark, bullies had significantly lower inflammation than victims, indicating better health.
Evidence of health benefits for bullies is consistent with a growing clinical impression that bullies may not have low self-esteem and poor mental health but actually have higher self-esteem. David Chango, a student assistance counselor who serves as an anti-bullying specialist in the New Jersey public school system, told me, “The old-school thinking about bullies was, ‘Oh, he just feels bad about himself. That’s why he does that to you. He’s just jealous.’ The new line of thinking really indicates that bullies feel great, and you’re just an easy target to help them do the thing they love.” This insight is supported by research; one longitudinal study of 307 middle school students found that over time, male bullies had no loss of self-esteem, and female bullies actually saw an increase in self-esteem.
Thus, far from a misguided and pathological behavior, some bullying may actually be very tactical and consistent with personal and societal reinforcement. This viewpoint is not incompatible with those who view bullying as caused by issues such as unhealthy aggression, impulse control problems, or anti-social personality. Bullying still may provide these people with improved social status relative to where they started, and for some people may be the only option to gain social dominance.
So what can we do?
First and foremost, we need to understand that bullying will persist as long as bullies seem “cool.” Showing bullies that their behavior is uncool can be difficult, though. As Chango says, “The problem is that any time an adult tries to make something uncool, the exact opposite happens.” Still, it may be possible to spread this message not only through consistent zero-tolerance policies in schools but also through depictions in popular media. One of the most compelling examples of this is the movie “21 Jump Street.” Channing Tatum plays a former bully who enjoys the social dominance and high self-esteem associated with bullying. But upon arriving at a new school, his bullying is universally met with scorn and derision. As one reviewer puts it, the movie shows that “being a bully is not a good look.” This pattern is similar to the pattern in smoking – as more anti-smoking laws appeared, evidence of the harm of smoking was disseminated, and smoking was portrayed less in movies, smoking just became less “cool.”
While working to show that bullying is uncool and not to be tolerated, we also need to provide other avenues for bullies to achieve social dominance and high self-esteem. Otherwise, bullying will always seem like a good option. Many anti-bullying programs involve social skills training to help children manage their negative emotions in more constructive ways. These programs need to be able to empathize with the goals of bullying and help provide additional options to achieve goals of social dominance and self-esteem.
One new approach that is being considered is motivational interviewing, which has shown efficacy with a range of behaviors such as alcohol and drug use. In contrast to the “intervention” approach, motivational interviews allow people to consider the pros and cons of their behaviors – thus validating the reasons why people bully but allowing them to consider the negative consequences as well to determine the overall effects of bullying behavior on themselves and others. Understanding the positive gains as well as negative consequences would, in theory, motivate bullies to achieve their goals of social dominance in more effective ways (e.g. learning sports) that don't have the negative effects of bullying.
We are walking a fine line. As a society, we benefit from people trying to better themselves, and often social competition is one of the best ways to “bring the best out of people.” We even have a grudging admiration for people who “bend” the rules or can impose their will to get what they want. In many ways, bullying is an extreme version of this behavior in its motivation. Regardless of its origin, though, we must send a clear message that bullying crosses the line into victimization and it can’t be rewarded or tolerated. When that message permeates our society, bullies will start to really think twice.
Dr. Mike Friedman is a clinical psychologist in Manhattan and a member of EHE International’s Medical Advisory Board.