Norway Massacre: What It Reveals About the Olweus Bullying Program

Is Norwegian compassion the secret to Olweus' positive research results?

Posted Aug 11, 2011

Anders Breivik massacre
On Friday, July 22, the most horrific non-wartime shooting spree in history was committed in the peace-loving country of Norway. Following his bombing of a government building in Oslo, killing eight people, Anders Breivik, on a crazed mission to get his homeland to reverse its liberal policy towards Muslim immigration, dressed up as a police officer and shot to death 69 youngsters at a summer camp on the island of Utoya.

It should not surprise us that even in a small country of five million people, once in many years one deranged individual will commit an unexpected act of mass murder.

However, perhaps even more surprising is that in the wake of such a monstrous event the majority of those five million people would remain steadfast in their faith in their nation's liberal penal code. The maximum punishment for murder in Norway is 21 years imprisonment regardless of how many lives the murderer took. If convicted, Mr. Breivik will be eligible for parole in 21 years. It was widely expected that the Norwegian people would express outrage and demand multiple life sentences for Breivik. But they didn't. They are content with the 21-year policy for a mass murderer.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Norway is also the origin of the worldwide anti-bully crusade. The "scientific" field of bullying was created in the 1970s by a Norwegian researcher, the peace-loving Prof. Dan Olweus, who provided us with the definition of bullying that is universally used today in academia and government. The program he created, the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program (OBPP), has become by far the world's most widely used and emulated program. Anti-bullying laws throughout the world, in fact, require schools to use the Olweus approach to bullying, if not the OBPP per se.

The problem is, the Olweus approach has been discovered to be failing in most places. Finally, after twelve years (since the Columbine shooting) of Olweus-inspired anti-bullying programs and policies, the U.S. Dept. of Education and even our President Obama have declared that the country's efforts are failing, that bullying is becoming an epidemic, and that we need to explore new approaches to the problem.

The seminal research that Olweus conducted in his native Norway (and Sweden, too; his study included his Scandinavian neighbor) showed about a 50% reduction in bullying after schools faithfully implemented the program for two years. Yet research in the US and other countries has found that the Olweus approach rarely reduces bullying and often leads to an increase. Researchers are at a loss to explain the discrepancy between their own findings and those of Olweus.

What is going on? Is Prof. Olweus a liar and a cheat? Did he fudge his statistics? Why are his positive results so difficult to replicate in America and most of the world?

I am not an advocate of the Olweus approach. I have the dubious distinction of being the world's most serious critic of it (in fact, virtually the only critic). I have written extensively about the fundamental flaws in his definition of bullying, his conceptualization of the problem, the conclusions he drew from his own research studies, and the program he developed to tackle the problem. (You can read it here: http://bullies2buddies.com/who-we-help/mental-health-professionals/888-w...) However, one thing I am certain of is that he is not is a liar or a cheat. He is, if anything, admirably honest. The last thing one could suspect him of is fudging data.

So why were his results so much better than those in America? The answer may just lie in the discrepancy between the way Scandinavia and America deal with criminals, as revealed in the aftermath of July 22.

Scandinavia is comprised of what are probably the most socially just countries in the world, with Norway possibly being at the top of the list. Its low crime rate and high standard of living are the envy of the world. No wonder Middle Easterners want to live there despite the cold weather! It brings warring peoples to the peace table in Oslo. It steadfastly champions the underdog. Its neighbor Sweden tries to encourage world harmony by giving out Nobel Peace Prizes. In the uncut version of Michael Moore's movie Sicko, we are shown a Norwegian prison for violent criminals. But it looks like an island paradise. The guards do not carry guns and are indistinguishable from the inmates. The prisoners engage in gardening and other productive activities. The staff treat them like decent human beings in the expectation that that's what they'll become. And, as a result of their humanistic treatment, the recidivism rate of Norwegian criminals is far lower than that of the US.

Why does Norway limit prison terms to twenty-one years? Because it wants to save people, not destroy them. Imagine you are a murderer. For the coming two decades you will be confined to a place where you are treated with dignity despite your actions. The people in charge care about you and believe that your essential nature is good. Are you not likely to come out a very different-and better-person?

But what is the American attitude? We are a country that seems to believe that punishment is the ultimate solution to all social problems. We are constantly passing laws making an increasingly large number of negative behaviors and feelings punishable offenses. A higher percentage of our population is incarcerated than in any other country, many of them for non-violent crimes. We treat them like caged animals in euphemistically-labeled "correctional facilities."

We take the same approach to children. In many residential treatment centers for children with behavior problems, the staff's main occupation is punishing them for infractions–a never-ending activity that takes up most of the staff time and energy. The underlying belief is that they will make the students become good by punishing them whenever they are bad. And then they blame their low success rate on the students.

Virtually all parents in our country, as well as most educators, believe that the solution to bullying is to prevent all children from "getting away" with any bullying behavior. We are certain that if we punish every act of bullying, children will become afraid to engage in bullying and it will eventually disappear. And we lobby for laws that hold schools legally responsible for any bullying that does occur, so that we can punish the schools for failing to punish bullying into oblivion. Countless adults have expressed outrage at me for implying that it is okay to let a student go unpunished for insulting another child or for "laying a hand on" a child, even though they did not cause that child any physical pain or damage. The latest buzzword is "social justice," which in our country usually translates into lobbying for laws that empower the government to punish anyone who expresses any socially inequitable sentiment.  

Yes, we Americans have become worshippers of punishment as the solution to all social ills. While we like to think of ourselves as lovers of freedom, we are in actuality striving to become a totalitarian police state in which the government holds us accountable for everything we do to each other and forces us to be nice and respectful to one another or it will prosecute and punish us.

We have also made ourselves the policeman of the world, sending our armies to other countries so we can force them to behave the way we think they should. We self-righteously bomb the dickens out of the countries that harbor anyone who attacks us, with little regard for the destruction we leave in our wake, both to them and to ourselves.

Now, getting back to the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program. While the OBPP treats all negative behavior as unacceptable and requires school staff to function as security guards to prevent children from upsetting each other, not all aspects of the program are written in stone by Olweus. One component of the program is for staff to meet regularly with each other to discuss bullying, plan how to handle it, and evaluate the success of their efforts. Potentially, every school can deal with bullying in it's own unique way.

Thus, just as we will inevitably see differences in the way schools implement Olweus, we will inevitably see differences between the ways countries implement it. In Norway, schools are likely to treat alleged bullies with humanity, projecting the faith that they are capable of being better. In America, schools are likely to treat alleged bullies with zero tolerance, trying to force them to improve their behavior by administering progressively intensive punishments.

But the main reason for the failure of bullying prevention programs is the use of punishment. If you and I are kids in school and I get you punished for bullying me, will you like and respect me more? No. You will hate me and want revenge, so you are likely to do something even worse to me. You will get all your friends against me and make me look like scum on FaceBook. And you will hate the school, too, for taking my side against you. Thus, punishment is hardly likely to turn you into a nicer person or a better student.

And therein lies all the difference. The tolerant Scandinavian approach to Olweus has a chance of succeeding. The intolerant American approach doesn't.

More Posts