Fatal Flaws of Bullying Research: Introduction

Why researchers are failing to solve the bullying problem.

Posted Jul 14, 2020

I am beginning a series of posts, one each, on the most serious scientific flaws that commonly affect bullying research. The situation facing us is dire. After two full decades of intensive warfare against bullying, bullying is as serious a problem as ever, if not more so.

The rate of suicide of bullied children has been escalating during the very period that society has been waging war against bullying, and many anti-bullying organizations continue to refer to bullying as an epidemic. We still hear of serious violence and even homicide committed in response to bullying. Lawsuits against schools for failing to stop children from being bullied are becoming increasingly commonplace. And those unfortunate victims of bullying, who can be found in just about every classroom, continue to suffer despite the ubiquity of anti-bullying laws.

The efforts of researchers to find a reliably effective solution to bullying has been going on for around four decades, and has been in hyper-drive for the past two. Millions upon millions of dollars of grant money have been invested in research on bullying, and thousands of studies have been published. Yet researchers continue documenting the astronomical prevalence of bullying and the terrible damage it causes. A current example is a study on bullying of LGBTQ youth, for they are particularly vulnerable to bullying, and many state anti-bullying laws specifically focus on their protection. The alarming headline, which went viral in world news, decries that “73% LGBTQ youth face bullying for reasons beyond sexual identity.” According to a recent study by Yale,

Death records from LGBTQ youths were about five times more likely to mention bullying than non-LGBTQ youths’ death records, the study found. Among 10- to 13-year-olds, over two-thirds of LGBTQ youths’ death records mentioned that they had been bullied.

A major anti-bullying organization, Stomp Out Bullying, reports that:

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer bullying is alarming. In fact 9 out of 10 LGBTQ+ students reported being harassed and bullied last year.

It must be remembered that these depressing statistics exist after decades of diversity promotion by schools and the media, public activism by LGBTQ advocacy groups, and anti-bullying education and laws that emphasize the suffering and needs of the non-heteronormative population. 

Scientists have gotten us to the moon. Why can't they figure out how to tackle bullying?
Source: WikiImages/Pixabay

NASA sent men to the moon within 10 years of President Kennedy announcing the mission. Why have scientists made such little progress when it comes to tackling bullying?

I will be arguing that the reason is that there are serious flaws that have consistently plagued the research on bullying. Without them, researchers might have discovered a reliable approach long ago. Wise people throughout history have discovered it, as have practical psychologists and self-help gurus of the modern era.

Today, the role of researchers for bringing a solution to bullying is crucial. It’s not because researchers hold the key to success. It’s because we have made them crucial. In our litigious modern world, it is more dangerous than ever for service providers, such as physicians and schools, to perform interventions that don’t provide customers with the results they want—and students and their parents are customers of the school. Just as medical doctors can be sued for malpractice, so can schools. Believing that researchers are the ultimate authorities on what works, schools, and the broader society as well, seem convinced that the best and safest way to combat bullying is by using interventions that are approved by researchers.

If society will only accept a researcher-approved approach to bullying, researchers had better find it. To do so, they must stop making serious errors.

These fatal flaws will not necessarily be presented in order of importance. They are all important. Furthermore, it is rare to find a study that does not exhibit at least one of them. Many studies are riddled by multiple flaws, including ones I may not be addressing.

My intention with these articles is to help readers of research studies on bullying to be more discerning, so they won't just take their conclusions at face value. Even more important is for researchers to recognize these flaws so they can stop falling prey to them and begin producing better studies and conclusions.

Few areas of science are flawless, but the social sciences are notorious for bias and error. This is because human behavior is highly complex, and therefore hard to understand and to predict. Furthermore, it is particularly difficult to be objective regarding our own species. We harbor conflicting philosophies about human nature and about what is good for us. 

It is extremely difficult to be unbiased regarding a biased concept. The moment we think of interpersonal dynamics in terms of bullies and victims, we have already decided who is the bad guy and who is the good guy. Our minds are made up about the subject we are studying, and our ability to come up with something fundamentally different that might actually work is precluded.

But how about peer reviewers? Journals have established the peer review process in order to prevent flawed studies from being published. We may rightfully wonder why the process has failed. There are at least two likely reasons. One is that peer reviewers, too, may have their mindset fixed by the judgmental paradigm of the bullying field. A second is that they rely on previous research. They may assume that past research studies that have survived the peer review process are valid. The body of existing research on bullying is so vast and so monolithic in its premises and conclusions that they may have no reason to suspect that there can be anything fundamentally wrong with it. In fact, they might reject anything that conflicts with the orthodox bullying field. (This has happened to me.)

For the sake of the multitude of victims of bullying, let’s hope that we can open the eyes of our scientists and guide them to become more scientific.