by Izzy Kalman January 26, 2009 Psychology Today Blog, A Psychological Solution to Bullying
Both the general and the professional communities have been led to believe that the highest level of truth is to be found in peer-reviewed research journals. Our professional organizations have been informing us with increasing frequency that we need to follow research-based procedures.
So why is society making such little progress in solving the problem of bullying? With thousands of published research studies on bullying, why is bullying becoming a growing problem rather than decreasing?
Quite simply, the research is biased. Yes, even the peer-reviewed research is biased! And flawed research does not lead to good results.
But how can research that is meticulously reviewed by professional peers prior to publication be biased? Aren’t the reviewers objective?
Unfortunately, when it comes to bullying, the answer is “No!” And the researchers are all victims of the same bias, so they don’t recognize the bias in the research of others.
First of all, the very term, “bully,” is biased. You can’t be objective about people once you think of them in this insulting manner. I will deal with this in greater detail at another time. Secondly, the definition of bullying given to us by the father of the anti-bully movement, Dan Olweus, is a biased definition. And since the academic researchers universally accept this definition, all the resulting research is biased.
Bertrand Russell said, “Few people can be happy unless they hate some other person, nation, or creed.” Researchers are human beings, too, and they like to have some group to hate, and bullies are so convenient to hate because we all have our bullies, and we can hate them without being accused of being racists. And since the psychological and educational establishments have all zealously joined the anti-bully crusade, bullies are the group we can all safely hate.
Researchers like to look for exciting topics to research, and bullying has fit that bill like nothing in recent history. How exciting to explore these evil children who like to make others miserable! And the media, too, love to publish sensational stories about research that satisfies our morbid curiosity about these devilish children in our midst.
A couple of months ago, there was a story that spread through the media like wildfire, a story that was carried both by major news outlets and by minor local ones. Researchers had discovered that bullies enjoy observing others’ pain! Here are some of the headlines of newspaper articles covering this research study:
With news reports like these, how can anyone possibly resist lighting up their torches and joining the angy, self-righteous anti-bully mob?
But whom did these researchers study? Did they go to the school and ask them to provide them with a representative sample of students who have been accused of being bullies? No! They wanted to make sure their research is rigorous, and that they don’t by mistake do their experiment on kids who are not bullies. So they recruited the meanest anti-social students they could find, those diagnosed as conduct disordered, a condition that in adults would be labeled sociopath. The researchers then declared them to be bullies and electronically scanned their brain activity while watching scenes of people supposedly experiencing pain. The sensation-hungry news media then fed the sensation-hungry public the findings that bullies take pleasure in others’ pain.
If you work in a school, and even if you read the research on bullies, you know that most of the kids who get accused of bullying are not budding sociopaths. On the contrary. Many of them are popular, intelligent, successful students. Like the rest of us ordinary mortals, they are sometimes mean. Kids get upset by them and then complain to the school authorities, who then label them bullies. Most of these alleged bullies are run of the mill, imperfect kids who haven’t yet attained our adult level of sainthood. But the researchers publish their biased, infuriating findings about bullies, based on a sample of conduct disordered kids, and we all eagerly take up arms to go on an anti-bully crusade, fantasizing that we are going to free the schools of evil kids who enjoy inflicting pain on poor, innocent, angelic victims.
Furthermore, if you talk to kids who are conduct disordered, they will often present themselves as victims. These kids tend to be very angry, and anger is not a bully feeling; it is a victim feeling. We only get angry when we feel victimized. These kids are angry at their parents, at their schools, at society, at the unfairness of life. When people feel like victims, they are full of anger, hatred and desire for revenge. They are capable of doing the most horrific actions and they feel justified because they are getting back at their perceived persecutors. For example, consider the following headline: Nepalese worker kills alleged bully. Who behaved more horrifically, the alleged bully, or the victim?
There are other problems with the validity of this widely publicized research study, but I won’t get into them here. My concern here is to demonstrate how intelligent researchers–considered the bastions of the highest level of objective truth upon which we are instructed to base our policies–publish invalid research reports that inspire us to fear and loathe bullies. Then the popular media, who love sensational stories, spread the horrific conclusions to the public, that loves to read sensational stories, and we feel we have no choice but to establish and enforce zero tolerance policies that make the bullying problem even worse. (For more, see my blog entry of last week.)