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What’s Wrong with the Psychology Underlying the Anti-Bully Movement

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by Izzy Kalman
(October 2008) In the decade since the Columbine massacre, thousands of research studies have been conducted on bullying, yet the world is no closer to a solution. Countries that embark on anti-bully campaigns discover that the more intensively they fight bullying, the more intense bullying becomes. Why? Quite simply, the anti-bully movement, while initiated and promoted by psychologists, is poor psychology. In fact, it is an abandonment of basic psychological and philosophical principles.
The arguments in this paper are directed specifically to the classic anti-bully programs modeled on the work of Dan Olweus, known as “the father of the anti-bully movement.” There are many programs that call themselves “anti-bully” programs. Some of these are good social skills programs that actually teach kids how not to be victims rather than targeting bullies, and are based on sound principles. Many of the points in this article, therefore, do not apply to them.
The definition of bullying in this paper is universally accepted among researchers and is taken from an article entitled State Laws and Policies to Address Bullying in Schools, by Susan Limber and Mark Small, School Psychology Review, 2003, Volume 32, No. 3, pp. 445-455. (The words, “Part One” and “Part Two” are my insertions and not part of the original article.)

[Part One] Among researchers, bullying is commonly understood as aggressive behavior that: (a) is intended to cause distress or harm, (b) exists in a relationship in which there is an imbalance of power or strength, and (c) is repeated over time (Limber, 2002; Nansen et. al., 2001, Olweus, 1993).

[Part Two] Bullying may involve physical action, words, gestures, or social isolation. Although bullying may involve direct, relatively open attacks against a victim, bullying frequently is indirect, or subtle, in nature (spreading rumors, enlisting a friend to assault a child; Limber, 2002; Olweus, 1993; Rigby, 1996).

1. The two parts of the definition easily lead to abuse of the label and cause many kids to be unfairly treated as pathological.

Part One of the definition refers to cowardly sociopaths. They enjoy hurting people, and they do it repeatedly, but they are cowards, so they pick on people who are weaker than themselves. People like this do exist, but they are rare. Perhaps one percent of the population fits that description.

Part Two refers to any behavior that can make anyone feel bad. According to this part of the definition of bullying, if you are not a saint, you are a bully! Only perfect saints never do the kinds of behavior that are described in the second part of the definition. But this is the part of the definition that is used by anti-bully programs and policies, which is why the percentage of kids who are deemed bullies is so high (ranges from 10 to 20 percent or more are usually cited). No school does diagnostic psychological testing to determine if children are cowardly sociopaths before it labels them bullies. The only criterion used for determining that someone is a bully is a victim’s complaint. However, the anti-bully psychologists and the media constantly portray bullies as belonging to the Part One of the definition–cowardly sociopaths­­–garnering easy support for anti-bully policies. Then they unleash their punitive anti-bully policies against anyone who fits Part Two of the definition–virtually anyone.

2. The term “bully” is biased.

a. Psychologists are supposed to be objective regarding their subject. Bully is an insult and a negative judgment, and everyone, including most of the researchers, hates bullies. It is impossible to conduct unbiased research when we are biased against the subject we are studying. Imagine a researcher getting accolades for conducting research on idiots, wimps or losers!
b. Some researchers call bullying by the more scientifically objective, non-insulting term, dominance behavior. However, they are now more likely to refer to it as bullying because the big government grant money today is in bullying, not dominance. Furthermore, many researchers want to avoid making bullies look good in any way. Since the term dominance behavior can have positive connotations, they no longer use it.
c. Researchers discover that bullies (not “bully/victims,” but pure bullies) are high in self-confidence and popularity, and are often good students. Even the teachers tend to like them. Victims, on the other hand, are anxious and depressed. Yet the researchers put the responsibility only on bullies to change rather than victims.

3. The experts ignore their own definition of bullying.

The three foundations of the definition of bullying are: 1) An intention to hurt the victim; 2) An imbalance of power or strength; 3) Repeated attacks against the victim. In practice, all of these three aspects are ignored by the very scientists who base their work on this definition.
a. For people to be bullies, they must have the intention to hurt their victims. But accused bullies are never consulted regarding their intentions. If the accused bullies insist they were only fooling around and didn’t intend to cause harm, the experts call them liars without a conscience. Only the victims determine if people are bullies. The truth is that people who intend to harm others are much more likely to feel like victims rather than bullies.
b1. The “imbalance of power” is, of course, supposedly in the bully’s favor. However, the researchers discover that very often bullies are actually weaker than their victims. So they modify the definition, saying there must be an imbalance of power: the bully can be either weaker or stronger than the victim but not the same strength. Thus they employ the following logically absurd policy: if you pick on someone weaker than yourself, you are a bully; if you have more courage and pick on someone your own strength, you are no longer a bully. But if you have even more courage and pick on someone stronger than yourself, you become a bully again! Logic, the most basic tool of science, disappears when we indulge in passionate campaigns against bullies.
b2. Alternatively, the experts will say that the bully has either a physical or a psychological power advantage over the victim. How do they determine if there is a psychological advantage? Very simple: If the victim feels bullied, the bully obviously has a psychological advantage over the victim. But this is a tautology (circular reasoning). Again, logic does not apply in the world of bullying psychology.
b3. Furthermore, the power differential is really not on the side of the bullies. Victims have the entire adult establishment fighting on their side, so they really have more power than the bullies. The reason bullies are seen as “cool” by most of their peers (to the chagrin of the researchers) is that they have the courage to defy the authorities.
c. Bullying is supposed to be repetitive, but even a one-time attack is treated as bullying by many bullying experts. Anti-bully policies usually don’t instruct us to wait around to see if the suspected bully is going to attack again before we accuse him/her of bullying.
d. Barbara Coloroso, author of the best-seller, The Bully, The Bullied and the Bystander, adds a fourth part to the definition of bullying: dehumanizing the victim. But bullies usually don’t dehumanize victims. They insult them, but usually with quite human terms. The people who are doing the dehumanizing are the anti-bully activists, including Coloroso herself: they demonize bullies. Read her blood-curdling descriptions of bullies in the book. They paint bullies as the devil incarnate whose evil is amplified by the complicit bystanders who do nothing to stop them and even encourage them in their satanic actions. Coloroso inspires to join the campaign to hunt down and eradicate these emotional vampires at all costs. Bullies are often illustrated on covers of books, in articles, and on websites as devils with horns or tails, or as humanoid bulls on two legs. At best, they are portrayed as big, dumb, cowardly brutes threatening sweet, helpless children a fraction of their own size.

4. The anti-bullying psychology is attacking the wrong problem.

a. The anti-bully movement received its impetus from Columbine and the other school shootings. However, bullies rarely commit school shootings; victims do. The most dangerous people in the world, both to themselves and to others, are not bullies but victims. When people feel like victims, they are full of anger, hatred, and desire for revenge. They are capable of doing the most horrendous acts while feeling totally justified. If the problem were to be approached logically, the conclusion would be that its true source is people thinking like victims.
b. Everyone needs to learn to deal with bullying because it is part of life. Heaven is the only place where everyone is always nice to each other. The problem is not bullying, but not knowing how to handle being bullied. The worst bullying of all happens right in the home, and most people don’t know how to deal with it.

5. The bullying experts attribute victim traits and behavior to bullies.

Experts are supposed to understand their subjects and portray them accurately. Any research that takes victim behavior and attributes it to bullies is invalid and journal editors should refuse to publish it.
a. Anti-bully experts say that bullies lack empathy. However, victims are at least as likely to lack empathy as their alleged bullies. Victims are the ones who never have empathy for the other side. They don’t understand how their bullies could be so mean to them, and they usually believe they are morally superior to their bullies. Few victims are saints, and they are probably mean to other people in their lives. In fact, they are often meaner to their bullies than their bullies are to them. They want to hurt their perceived bullies, not realizing that this makes them no different or better than their bullies.
b. The experts say bullies don’t feel remorse. However, it’s not bullies who don’t feel remorse, but victims. Researchers have discovered that most kids we label bullies actually do feel remorse when they discover that they truly hurt their victims. Often, when kids who were victims grow up and confront their bullies as adults, the “bullies” are horrified when they discover how miserable they made their victims feel. Victims are the ones who don’t feel remorse because they have no reason to feel remorse. They believe they are the good ones, the aggrieved party. They feel justified in wanting to hurt or kill their perceived bullies. And our anti-bully campaigns encourage them to feel justified.
People with borderline personalities and other character disorders treat other people badly, but they feel like victims. They get offended easily, blame others, and want revenge, and they think they, themselves, are wonderful people. They have little capacity to empathize with others. They have no awareness of how miserable they make them. They are absorbed only with themselves.
c. The experts call anger, hatred and revenge bullying. But these are emotions felt by victims. We get angry because we feel victimized; we don’t like the way we are being treated. When we hate people, it’s because we feel victimized by them, that they are making our lives worse. We want revenge against people who have hurt us.
d. The experts call prejudice and genocide bullying. But prejudiced people feel like they are the victims of the groups they hate. White supremacists believe American society is harmed by Blacks and other dark-skinned ethnic groups. Homophobic people hate gays and lesbians because they believe they are destroying the moral fabric of society and encouraging others to become gay and lesbian. Hitler felt victimized by Jews, and when he grew up and took power, he convinced most Europeans that they are the victims of the Jews, too. And when people feel like victims, they are capable of the most horrendous acts and feel wonderful doing them.

6. The anti-bully psychology is trying to solve the problem in the least effective way.

The anti-bully approach is trying to stop kids from being victims by “changing the entire school culture.” Rather than teaching kids how to overcome their problems, it is trying to create an environment without any problems.
That is exactly what our government is trying to do to protect people from West Nile Virus. It is spraying our countrysides, forests, and backyards with dangerous pesticides in the hope of getting rid of the mosquitoes that carry the virus. Does everyone love this approach? Of course not. Many scientists believe that it causes more harm than good: 1) The massive spraying is very expensive. 2) The pesticides kill off many innocent animals and insects, including ones that eat the mosquitoes that carry the virus. 3) The pesticides are toxic to human beings. 4) Strains of mosquitoes are likely to develop that are immune to the pesticides, making them even harder to get rid of.
So why are we spraying? Because there is no vaccine or antidote to West Nile Virus. If there were, no one in their right mind would consider spraying.
But this is what the anti-bully psychology is trying to do: stop kids from being victims by getting rid of bullies from the world. And, like spraying, it may be causing more harm than good.

7. The leaders of the anti-bully psychology don’t know how to solve the problem of bullying psychologically.

Psychologist Dan Olweus, the “father” of the anti-bully movement and whose program is considered the “gold standard,” does not know how to solve the problem of bullying psychologically. He is a psychologist, but there is no “psychology” in his solution. Go ahead…read his work carefully. Try to figure out what school of psychotherapy, counseling or philosophy it is based on. If you can figure it out, please let me know.
a. The Olweus type anti-bully program is a law enforcement approach, not a psychological one: increased patrolling of school grounds; protecting victims from bullies; apprehending, investigating, interrogating, judging and punishing bullies. If it were actually possible to make all negative behavior disappear by treating it like a crime, every government would have created Utopia long ago. We wouldn’t need psychology.
b. When scientists study a phenomenon, they are not supposed to judge it but to understand it. They realize that universal human behaviors must be serving a positive purpose. They don’t decide to wipe out a phenomenon just because they find it personally repulsive. And if they try to make improvements or solve problems, they try to work in accordance with the laws of nature rather than by denying or ignoring those laws. They understand that any intervention is likely to have negative unintended consequences.
There is no scientific thinking in Olweus’ anti-bully program. One does not need to have taken Psychology 101 to come up with his plan. Any policeman could have come up with this. Most parents with no training in parenting adopt an essentially identical approach to aggression between their kids, only to be endlessly involved in trying to stop the aggression. Olweus declares that we need to, and are able to, completely get rid of bullying, while ignoring the possibility that his interventions can have anything other than beneficial results.
c. The Olweus program is a simple shot-gun approach in which he recommends every weapon he can think of against bullies, in the hope that the massive, all-encompassing campaign will reduce bullying: conducting anti-bully assemblies and plastering the walls with anti-bully posters; teaching kids what bullying is and the punishments they will receive if they engage in it; reassuring victims that they are innocent and it’s all the bullies’ fault; making sure every inch of the school campus is constantly guarded by staff; weekly anti-bully lessons for students; weekly staff meetings on bullying (the staff is supposed to try whatever they can think of and monitor their interventions to see how they work, which means, of course, that Olweus himself does not know what works or he would have told them); encouraging students to inform on each other; getting student bystanders to stand up for victims against bullies; getting parents to stand up for victims against bullies; getting teachers to use more enlightened teaching methods (which is always a good idea! Why not throw it in for good measure! What, by the way, are the correct enlightened teaching methods that are to be used, and who is to make that determination?)
d. There actually is one intervention that Olweus does not include in his shotgun attack on bullying. He omits the only truly psychological and effective one: teaching victims how to solve their problem on their own! Olweus doesn’t believe that victims can be reliably taught how to do this (because he, himself, doesn’t know how to teach it), nor does he believe they should be taught because they are the good guys and deserve to be provided with a life without bullying.
e. His program has so many different components, but he does no research to sort out the effective components from the ineffective or harmful ones. How does he decide that everything in his program is worthwhile? Good intentions alone don’t make an intervention good.

8. “Telling” makes children hate each other.

The intensive, Olweus-inspired programs all encourage kids to tell the authorities when they are bullied or observe bullying, though some try to put some limitation on the telling.
a. The best way to get people to despise you (short of committing a serious crime against them) is to inform on them to the authorities. If you are not sure about this, try calling the police on your neighbors whenever they do something you don’t like. But kids are being instructed that they must inform on bullies. Many schools are adopting systems that enable kids to report bullying incidents anonymously. This is wonderful: kids can get others in trouble and no one knows who did it to them! There are schools that will punish students who observe bullying but don’t tell, thus forcing them to be snitches on each other.
b. “Telling” creates a cycle of informing that never ends. When A tells on B, B wants to tell on A, and then A wants to tell on B, etc.
c. Socially savvy children understand that telling doesn’t work and evokes contempt of other kids. The researchers discover that most children don’t want to tell, then conclude that we need to figure out better ways to convince kids that they should tell.

9. Researchers ignore the results of their own research and recommend actions that are not supported by their findings.

Scientists are supposed to accept the results of their research, otherwise, why bother conducting it in the first place? However, when it comes to bullying, the conclusions are made in advance, and any findings that contradict their conclusions are dismissed. The eternal conclusion is that schools need to do more to make bullying stop. Prof. David Smith found that most anti-bully programs produce no benefit or make the problem worse, but recommends that we continue to use them anyway. Olweus reports that teachers who tackle bullying more intensely have more bullying among their students. Yet he recommends intensified teacher involvement against bullying. Many researchers conclude their journal articles by saying that “schools need to do more to make bullying stop” even though nothing in their research supports such a conclusion. In fact, their work is more likely to warrant the recommendation that schools should do less to make bullying stop. Bullies are supposed to be intentionally evil, and whenever researchers find something about bullies that could be seen as positive, they will immediately follow with details of how evil they are. Researchers find that kids who commit random school shootings were victims of bullying, and then inform us that the solution is to get rid of bullies. Can’t they think of the option of teaching kids how not to be victims?

10. Researchers never study the negative effects of anti-bully programs.

I will send you $10 for every research study you can show me that investigates the harm caused by anti-bully programs. Responsible researchers need to consider the negative effects of their interventions. There are few things in life that have only benefits. However, when it comes to anti-bully programs, you will not find one research study that sets out to measure the negative effects, such as: promoting a victim mentality; causing increased bullying; wasting time and money on programs that don’t work; wrecking the lives of kids who get accused of, and punished for, being bullies; causing strife between accused bullies and their parents, who are supposed to punish them at home for what they did in school; problems between students escalating into feuds between their families, with the school having to play judge between them; increasing hostility of parents towards schools for failing to stop their children from being bullied; and expensive lawsuits against schools for failing to stop kids from being bullied.

11. Anti-bully psychology ignores basic psychology and science.
a. It is well established that punishing children is a poor way to improve their behavior, and usually causes more misbehavior. Yet the anti-bully experts insist that bullies must be punished (or “administered consequences”– the educational world’s new euphemism for “punishment”).
b. Science understands that everything affects everything else, and that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Yet they insist on telling victims–and us as well–that victims have nothing to do with being bullied.
c. Rewarding behavior is likely to cause that behavior to be repeated. When we take the side of the victim against the bully, we are rewarding kids for thinking and behaving like victims, so we are likely to get even more victim thinking and behaving.
d. Parenting experts teach us that when we pay attention to negative behavior, children are likely to give us more negative behavior, for attention is a powerful reinforcer. Yet anti-bully experts insist that no act of bullying should go unaddressed. Then we wonder why bullying is increasing.
e. The theory of “locus of control” informs us that people who are successful and happy tend to have an internal locus of control: they believe that what happens to them is largely influenced by their own behavior. People who are failures and miserable tend to have an external locus of control: they believe what happens to them is not in their control. But the experts tell kids that if they are victims, it is not in their control, thereby promoting an external locus of control.
f. It is simple logic that the development of resilience requires the experience of hardship­–and that there is no such thing as a life without hardship. Yet the psychological organizations are trying to promote resilience while simultaneously a) insisting that kids are entitled to a life without bullying, and b) striving to create a totally safe school environment, which, of course, deprives kids of the necessary conditions for developing resilience.

12. Anti-bully psychology ignores basic principles of counseling/therapy.
a. Counselors and therapists are supposed to get clients to take responsibility for their problems, but the anti-bully experts teach them to blame others–bullies–for their problems. Blaming others is one of the hallmarks of psychological disorder.
b. Counselors and therapists are not supposed to actively protect their clients from other people, but the basic tenet of the anti-bully psychology is that we must protect victims from bullies.
c. It is a cardinal error for counselors and therapists to judge between people, but the anti-bully programs force us to play judge. This makes the kids hate each other more, and at least one side (the accused bully) hates us, too. Most experts in sibling rivalry know that the major cause of sibling rivalry is parents playing judge between their children. Yet the very thing that is the cause of the problem at home is prescribed as the solution in school.
d. One of the major goals of mental health is the promotion of self-confidence and self-esteem. This requires us to learn to handle the challenges of life on our own. But the bullying experts tell kids that if they are being bullied, they can’t handle it on their own, for the bullies are too powerful.
e. The basic premise of Cognitive Behavior Therapy and Rational Emotive Therapy is that the way we feel is determined by our attitudes towards events, and that we can change our attitudes. But the bullying psychology teaches that victims have no control over the bullying problem and that it is a terrible, terrible thing to be bullied. The experts are awfulizing and catastrophizing bullying, to borrow Albert Ellis’ terms.
f. One of the theories for explaining depression is learned helplessness. What do the experts teach kids about being bullied? That they are helpless to solve the problem by themselves. Thus they are teaching helplessness, unwittingly increasing the likelihood that kids will develop depression.
g. It is axiomatic that if we spank kids, we are teaching them that it is justifiable to hit. Yet we bully bullies and expect kids to learn that bullying is wrong. The things we do to bullies are the very same things we teach them not to do to others: we insult bullies (bully is an insult, not a diagnosis); blame them; demonize them; instruct kids not to respect or tolerate them; punish them; exclude them (suspensions, expulsions, declaring “no-bully” zones); make huge public gestures (campaigns and posters) against them; and enlist everyone to wage war against them.

13. Anti-bully experts promote hysteria rather than sanity in society.
The mental health professions are supposed to reduce hysteria. However, the anti-bully movement promotes hysteria.
a. Articles (including research papers) appear on a daily basis alerting the public to the horrors of bullying. In recent months, articles promoting fear of cyberbullying have been proliferating.
b. They teach kids that they should be upset by mere words: Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words kill is the new slogan. They relate true, heartrending stories about victims of bullying. The very fact that we have turned insults into a punishable crime informs children that it is a terrible thing for anyone to say anything insulting to them.

14. The anti-bully movement is unconstitutional.

Anti-bullying policies violate the First Amendment right to Freedom of Speech, the cornerstone of democracy, by making it a punishable offense to say anything that can upset anyone else. However, no one seems to care, because when it comes to bullying, anything is justifiable, even trouncing on our most basic Constitutional right. Furthermore, Freedom of Speech is the solution to verbal bullying. It is the Constitutional version of the “sticks and stones” slogan (if you allow people to insult you all they want, they stop insulting you).

In conclusion, if the Olweus-inspired anti-bully programs have anything to do with psychology, it’s that that they are a compilation of psychological mistakes.

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