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Biased Researchers Fuel Bully Witch-Hunt–Part Two

by Izzy Kalman February 4, 2009 Psychology Today Blog, A Psychological Solution to Bullying

My last two blog entries were about researchers being biased and, as a result of this bias, fomenting fear and loathing of bullies among the public. I wrote specifically about a study supposedly proving that bullies enjoy causing and seeing others in pain. The University of Chicago sent out a press release that treated bullies and kids with Conduct Disorder (CD) as one and the same.

Some readers have been upset with my accusations of researcher bias, as well as bias by the peer reviewers. Some ask me if there is a better system than the peer review system.

The truth is that I am not really as critical of scientific researchers as I have appeared in these blog entries, and I have nothing against the peer review system. But researchers are human beings and it is difficult to completely eliminate bias, especially when everyone has been led to think a certain way about a subject. But I believe that nowhere is bias as strong as in the research on bullying. It is plagued by bias from the core. In fact, it is practically impossible to do unbiased research on bullies.

Before you continue reading, I would like you to quickly take the following quiz. It should not take you more than a minute:…

I assume you have just returned from taking the quiz (if you would like to see how others responded, you can go to this link:…

Now I would like to ask you, What did you respond for item number 9, “Bully”? I have given this exercise to thousands of people at my seminars. If you are llike at least 95% of respondents, you answered “Insult.”

Yes, we are doing scientific research on an insult! We are not allowed to insult people; it is a form of bullying. But it’s become okay to call people bullies. It is the only accpetable and even encouraged insult today.

Could I get away with doing scientific research on children who are idiots or jerks or wimps or sluts? Would any journal publish such a study? But today you get applauded for insulting kids by calling them bullies and pubishing research on them.

Research is supposed to be unbiased. It is impossible to do unbiased research on a biased concept. Just as you can’t be unbiased about people you think of as sluts or jerks or losers, you can’t be unbiased about people you think of as bullies.

Again, before I continue, I would like you to answer two simple questions: (Remember to return to this page after you answer.)

Now, where, you may ask, did the researchers come up with their biased view of bullies as sociopaths when the great majority of people we call bullies are obviously not. From the same place everyone else has gotten it: the “father” of the bullying psychology, Dan Olweus, whose work on bullying is treated by the entire academic world as gospel. The following is a universally accepted definition of bullying written by Olweus’s protégé in the United States, Susan Limber, who is also the U.S. government’s liaison on bullying. (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) I have added the words, Part One and Part Two before each paragraph.

[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)

Part One, indeed, refers to a sociopath–and a cowardly one, no less. It is someone who intentionally hurts people and does it repeatedly, but he’s a coward, so he picks on people weaker than himself. And this is the stereotype of a bully: a big brute picking on people weaker than himself. And when researchers do research on bullies, those are the study subjects they are likley look for: sociopaths, or kids with CD. We can’t blame them for thinking they are studying bullies when they study kids with CD beause this what the official definition leads them to believe.

But look at Part Two. According to this, any behavior that can make anyone feel bad is bullying. If you roll your eyes when someone says something ridiculous, you are a being a bully. If you don’t want to be someone’s friend, you are a being a bully. Criticize someone’s sneakers, you are being a bully. Gossip about someone behind their back, you are being a bully. In other words, if you are not an angel, you are a bully.

Please recall the answers you gave to the two questions. For Question One, “I enjoy hurting people who are weaker than myself, and I do it to them repeatedly,” what did you answer? If you are like everyone who has answered this at my seminar, you said, “No.”

How about Question Two, “I have upset a person on more than one occasion,” how did you answer? Almost certainly, “Yes.” (If you want to see how others answered, you can go to this link.)

In other words, according to Part One of the definition, none of us are bullies. According to Part Two, all of us are bullies!

The real problem with the official definition arises because no one uses Part One in practice. No school carries out diagnostic psychological testing to determine that a student is conduct disordered or sociopathic before labeling him/her a bully. It is strictly Part Two that is used by schools to brand kids as bullies. A student does something that upsets another student, and now that student is a bully. And that’s why all kinds of kids who are absolutely normal get labeled bullies. In fact, the official definition applies at least as well to victims as to bullies.

Case in point: the story of Joel Olmeda. You can read it here. From his point of view, he is a victim, but the school labels him a bully. You rarely read stories like this in the news because they are not as sensational as stories about “bullies” who injure or kill other kids, or push kids to commit suicide. But such cases are rare. If you work in schools, you know that the bullying cases that schools routinely have to deal with are much more likely to be like Joel Olmeda.

Yes, everyone is happy to go after bullies. Until, that is, they discover it is their own child who is being labeled a bully.

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