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Why Do Decent People Bully?

What happened to Karen Klein?

The bullying by a group of teenage schoolchildren of a 68-year-old bus monitor names Karen Klein in New York State reached international prominence after its YouTube posting and led to widespread disgust at the teenagers' behavior. 

Several of the children expressed apparently genuine remorse afterwards. But why do they behave in this way?

The great social psychologist Leon Festinger proposed a theory of cognitive dissonance which proposed that we are powerfully motivated to maintain consistency in our thoughts, feelings and actions—in other words to minimize conflict among them. Brain imaging studies have shown the networks involved in sorting out such conflicts [i].

This is the logic of cognitive dissonance – that strange need to keep the ego reassured that what is being done is all right and proper and above all consistent. This is, of course, how bullies work. They pick a victim. They then choose someone in the group who has no strong feelings about the victim—maybe they even like them. The bully then gets that person to do some small tease—something which on its own is trivial, perhaps even mildly funny—like a relatively harmless comment directed at Karen Klein.

Cognitive dissonance means that they will find it hard to say no when the bully escalates and—implicitly or explicitly—asks them to do something a little bit less innocent, like the more hurtful comments in the escalating abuse of Karen Klein. The dissonance conflict detectors respond in this sort of way: ‘I’m a good person, but I am doing this to them—ergo, they must be a bad person deserving of this. ‘

And so we see spiraling situations where more and more people in a group are manipulated by the bully into harassing and mobbing the poor victim—as we saw on that school bus.  Most of these children in other circumstances would likely be decent people but unbeknown to them, the bully-leaders had injected conflict into their inconsistency-hating minds, forcing them desperately to balance out the conflict in the only way it can—by concluding that the victim is deserving of all they are getting. 

The awful reality for the victim of bullying is that there is a very high probability of escalation of worse things that happen in the brain’s balancing out of internal conflict: if she is that bad, then she must deserve something even worse…’ and so on. But keeping the ego calm by dampening down conflict in the brain isn’t the only thing going on in the minds of a bullying group. There is of course one other potent mechanism, a drug no less—power.

And what better drug could there be for a self-doubting, bored, mixed-up teenager? It doesn’t matter that the goal that power focuses you on is twisting the cord of mental anguish round a low status bus monitor who you maybe even quite liked just a few days previously. But power is a drug that floods our brains with intoxicating chemicals and like all drugs, it can take a strong hold on people. Every so often one of these cases hits the press, where the victim—often a teenager in a school—kills themselves after a campaign of bullying. The enquiry almost always uncovers a steady escalation of harassment and usually reports the resulting distress of many of the erstwhile bullies as well.

Bullying is hugely a product of circumstance, and that is why too much focus on the individual psychology of the bullying group can often be fruitless: yes, of course, there can be a psychologically disturbed or slightly sociopathic individual who trick psychologically normal classmates or workmates into joining the mob.

But the mob process itself is accelerated by their individual brains being intoxicated by the power of the bully.  This power can make normal people reckless and unempathic in their behaviour towards ‘Chris’ as we saw in that school bus.  The worse the behaviour is, the more the inconsistency-hating mind has to  rationalize extraordinary behaviour by seeing the bullied person as in some warped way, ‘disgusting’.

The Winner Effect: How Power Affects Your Brain, Ian H  Robertson

Published  October 15  by St Martin’s Press, New York.

Published in June by Bloomsbury in London

[i] Van Veen et al Nature Neuroscience 12, 1469 - 1474 (2009)