Why We Tolerate Bullying, Hazing, and Abuse

Does our cognitive laziness and trusting nature make the problem worse?

Posted Mar 13, 2014

Why is bullying in schools and in the workplace an ongoing problem? How about hazing in team sports? What about instances of physical and sexual abuse? Why don’t people intervene?

These are big problems and often people know that they are going on, but they either accept them, as in bullying or hazing (“boys will be boys”), they just look the other way, or they deny that it is a problem. What is going on psychologically?

A lot of the problem is due to how we think about things. We use mental shortcuts, what psychologists call “heuristics,” to aid us in our thinking. We also have a tendency to expend as little cognitive energy as possible trying to figure things out. As a result of this “cognitive laziness,” we often don’t investigate when we suspect that bullying is taking place (“They are just horsing around”).

Sometimes we just don’t recognize the signs of bullying or we form favorable initial impressions of a bully, and then discount when we observe them bullying or harassing someone. I’ve termed this the “Eddie Haskell Effect”—the bully, who appears nice to outsiders, bullies when not being observed, and complaints about the bully are discounted (“It can’t be Eddie!”).

Of course the bystander effect also explains why we tolerate misbehavior. First, with bullies, bystanders may not intervene for fear of being bullied themselves. In instances of hazing or other sorts of abuse, there is an assumption that “someone else”—some authority—will take care of it. Finally, there is the “I don’t want to get involved” factor—it’s too much work, too much of an inconvenience, etc.

So, what is the answer? How can we help to stop instances of bullying and abuse? I call it the two C’s: Cognition and Courage. We need to get involved and critically analyze the situation. Engage our brain, investigate, and call out instances of misbehavior. Then, we need the courage to take action, realizing that it is our duty to intervene.

Here are some resources on bullying:





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