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Mirror Neurons, Conscience Development and the Fallacy of Accountability for Bullying

by Izzy Kalman January 23, 2010 Psychology Today Blog, A Psychological Solution to BullyingThe most dangerous ideas are not the ones that sound obviously bad, but the ones that sound obviously good [paraphrasing Charles Murray in What it Means to be a Libertarian]. When an idea sounds obviously good, no one challenges it and it catches on like wildfire. One such idea is accountability. It has such a ring of truth to it: accountability. What could possibly be wrong with holding people accountable?Many people believe that the solution to bullying is to hold the bullies accountable for their behavior. The basic assumption is that it is our moral duty as adults to hold them accountable, and that if we do, they will stop being bullies. I have received countless comments similar to the following:

“I strongly agree with your approach to teach children the coping skills to deal with being bullied and I agree that this is a far more effective approach (as utilized in my clinical work). I still feel the bullies need to be held accountable for their behavior.”

The idea of accountability has trickled down from the business world. If it’s good enough for the big-bucks business world, it must be good for schools, too.

Holding people accountable in business is not only right but necessary for success. But if we are going to adopt a model from the business world, we should be true to the model.

In business, people are held accountable for doing their jobs. But would it be good for the business or its employees if it help people accountable for all of their behavior? Would you want to be accountable to your boss for what you eat for lunch or where you buy your clothing or how you get along with other people?

Let’s say I am your colleague and you can’t stand me. You roll your eyes when I talk at meanings and you don’t let me be part of your lunch clique. How would you like it if you were called into the boss’s office because I am upset over your dislike for me? Would it increase your appreciation for me or for the boss? Would it make you want to be nice to either of us? And how would the boss like having to deal with such problems?

If you do something that hurts my feelings, I am the person to whom you should be accountable, not the business. If a business were to hold us accountable for the way we make each other feel, we would all be miserable and the business would have a hard time surviving.

The government, too, holds citizens accountable for their behavior–but only for breaking the law. Would it be good for society or the individual if the government held people accountable for all of their behavior? How would you like it if the government were to keep constant surveillance over you and punish you whenever you speak sarcastically to a parent, lose patience with a child, criticize a boss, talk about someone behind their back or ignore a neighbor you don’t like? It would be practically impossible to have normal relationships. You would be absolutely miserable, living in a totalitarian police state–an Orwellian nightmare.

Yet this is precisely what we want for children today. We want them to be accountable to the school authorities for the way they make each other feel.

We want kids to stop being bullies. Bullying, as defined by the academic bullying experts and incorporated into our anti-bully policies, is any intentional act that can cause others physical, psychological or emotional pain. (I wonder, by the way, how they differentiate between psychological and emotional pain.) In other words, we are expecting kids to be saints. Only absolute saints never commit the kinds of acts the experts define as bullying.

The bullying experts tell us that bullies lack empathy, a necessary component for having a conscience. We need them to develop empathy so they will behave more morally. And we believe that holding them accountable for their behavior will promote this process.

But does holding children accountable to adults for the way they make each other feel indeed promote moral development?

There are two basic levels of morality. One is based on fear of punishment. The other is based on feeling remorse over hurting others.

Fear of punishment is not true morality. In fact, when we avoid committing specific actions because we don’t want to get punished, we are acting from self-interest. People whose conscience is based on avoidance of punishment are more likely to act badly when they are in a situation in which they know they are not going to get caught.

When we have a true conscience, on the other hand, we avoid those actions because we are concerned not with ourselves but with others. That’s why most of us feel sad and remorseful when we realize we hurt someone. We feel this way not because of parental training but because Mother Nature (or whatever you want to call the power or process that made us what we are) wants us to. Our survival both as individuals and as a group depends upon us feeling bad when we hurt one another.

What is the mechanism by which we feel bad when we hurt people? It’s through the functioning of what neuroscientists have appropriately labeled mirror neurons. Brain imaging has revealed that our brains actually experience what others experience. When someone smiles at us, we spontaneously smile. When someone screams in pain, we cringe. We know that laughter is contagious, which is why TV sitcoms usually have laugh tracks. When we watch a dancer, the same areas of the brain that are active in the dancer are simultaneously triggered in our brains even though we are not dancing. The entertainment industry would not exist if people were not capable of feeling what others feel.

And without mirror neurons, it would be impossible to have empathy and thus a conscience. The mirror neurons did not get there because of adult training but because Mother Nature put them there.

People who don’t have a conscience are either neurologically impaired or were raised under atypical conditions that prevented them from developing one. If you are neurologically incapable of feeling empathy, you can be punished and lectured to and trained 16/7 (I’m granting you 8 hours sleep per day) and you will still never develop a conscience. This point was made brilliantly in the movie, A Clockwork Orange.

The following is a typical event in the development of a conscience in a neurologically intact child.

You are five years old, an age by which you can observe and understand basic cause and effect relationships. Your younger sister is standing at the top of the staircase. Just for the heck of it, you give her a push when no parent is looking. She rolls down the stairs, and the next thing you know she is crying hysterically, blood flowing from her nose.

What happens to you? You feel horrified, knowing the blood is the result of injury. You feel her pain, thanks to your mirror neurons. And you feel guilty, knowing you are the one responsible for this terrible event. If you are not too frightened by the blood, you might even run over and hug her, apologizing profusely and trying to comfort her. And since the feeling of pain and guilt are so unpleasant, you never again push your sister down the stairs. This is the simple beauty and brilliance of nature’s programming.

Parents, though, are often prevented from witnessing this elegant natural process-because they actually prevent it from happening. And they do it because they believe it is their moral duty to hold their children accountable for the way they treat each other. If you have had children of your own, the following scenario may ring a bell.

Your sister is covered with blood because you knocked her down the stairs. You immediately sense her pain. But now your parents come rushing in, screaming, “Look what you did to your sister! How could you be so cruel?!”

What happens? Are your mirror neurons still attuned to your sister’s pain? Not any more. You are now facing your furious parents. You feel under attack, so you yell back, “I didn’t push her! She jumped!” or perhaps “She pushed me first!”

Your parents are hoping you will feel remorse for what you did. Instead you are defending yourself and blaming your sister for your terrible deed! And if your parents don’t believe you, they punish you even harder for lying, and then you really feel like an unfortunate victim. Victims don’t feel remorse; they want revenge. You are left fuming at your mean, punitive parents who apparently care more for your sister than for you, and you are probably mad at your sister, too, for having gotten you in trouble with your parents. You are likely to be on the lookout for an opportunity to get revenge against both your sister and your parents by hurting her again. You are also looking for opportunities to complain to your parents that your sister hurt you so that they will punish her. Meanwhile your parents are tormenting themselves, wondering what they did to deserve such a cruel, callous child!

Why did this happen? Because your parents believed that it’s their duty to hold their children accountable for the way they make each other feel.

Interventions that make matters worse among siblings at home are hardly likely to make matters better between students in school. When school authorities hold children accountable for the way they make each other feel, they actually hinder their development of a mature conscience, for the kids’ motivation becomes avoidance of punishment. And when the school punishes them, it makes them mad at each other and at the school as well. Then they want revenge, so the next aggressive acts are set in motion. Often, one kid gets blamed repeatedly, so that kid becomes increasingly angry and aggressive and gets labeled a bully. The school thought it was making that kid stop being a bully. It actually made the kid become a bully.

Is there, then, room for accountability and punishment in life? Of course.

Regarding accountability: If I hurt you, to whom am I accountable? The government? Your employer? Your teacher? Your parent? No. I am accountable to you. It is you I hurt you, not them. If you face me directly with the pain I caused you, I am likely to feel remorseful. But if I am accountable to the authorities, I will seek to absolve myself of guilt and possibly to blame you. Therefore when our children or students hurt each other, it is far more effective if we have them deal with each other directly, and preferably without our intervention. Additionally, it can be helpful to instruct people (not just kids, because adults also need this) to express their pain to the aggressor rather than their anger. If I get angry with you for hurting me, you are likely to get angry back at me. But if I sincerely let you know how you hurt me, you are much more likely to feel sorry and apologize.

And if there is a Higher Power that holds us personally accountable for our behavior, then we are accountable to the Higher Power as well–but not to a human authority.

Regarding punishment: 1. When kids are too young to understand the harm they are causing, it may be necessary to punish them so they will be afraid to do the harmful behavior again. And for adults who truly are lacking in conscience, it may be necessary to punish them for the same reason.

2. When you punish, do so with regret, as in, “I’m really sorry I have to do this to you, but you need to pay for what you did,” rather than saying angrily, “You broke the rules! You have to pay the consequences!”

3. When you punish, make the punishment fit the crime. Don’t make it unrelated to the crime or a hundred times worse than the crime. (For a good understanding of how to punish effectively and morally, a good source is the movement for Restorative Justice.)


If you would like to know how to get your kids to fight less while helping them develop responsibility for themselves, read my free online manual, A Revolutionary Guide to Reducing Aggression between Children at the following address:…

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