by Izzy Kalman January 30, 2009 Psychology Today Blog, A Psychological Solution to Bullying
I must confess, I have been caught with my pants down. I wrote my previous blog entry, Biased Researchers Fuel Bully Witch Hunt, without being fully intellectually honest, and I will make sure to be more upright in the future. Many of the blog readers are serious scientists and I can’t expect to get away with unjustified accusations. Especially when I am taking such a contrarian stance about a mission the entire professional community so passionately promotes, the anti-bully campaign. I had better be able to support what I write or I am going to find myself in deep trouble.
I had written about a research study that was reported world-wide by the media, supposedly showing that bullies enjoy causing and witnessing pain in others. I accused the researchers, as well as the peer-reviewers who allow the study to be published, of being biased against bullies. They used a sample of conduct disordered kids (who, if they were adults, would be diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder) to represent the population of “bullies,” when, in fact, the great majority of kids labeled bullies are not conduct disordered. Most of them are perfectly normal, some of them are socially dominant and popular, and the most seriously disturbed ones are more likely to be acting from a victim-mentality than from a bully mentality.
Where was my dishonesty? I wrote the blog entry based not on the research paper itself, but upon the newspaper reports of the research and on other bloggers’ criticisms of the study. I took it for granted that the news reports accurately stated what was in the study, for they were all consistent. I should have taken the time and effort to read the study itself before writing. The study, published in the journal Biological Psychology, was conducted by researchers at the University of Chicago and is entitled, Atypical Empathetic Responses in Adolescents with Aggressive Conduct Disorder: A functional MRI Investigation.
But an astute reader caught me, and I do thank him for it. I have learned my lesson and will never discuss a study again without first reading it. The reader, Gordon, wrote:
“This entry criticizing peer-reviewed articles…is inflammatory. The study cited by Izzy and the various popular media did indeed examine children with conduct disorder (CD). But they did not study bullies-the word is only mentioned twice in lists of possible manifestations of CD. They set out to examine brain functioning in children with CD. Their results indicate that children with CD do have different responses in their brains when watching others in pain. Their article is far from a definitive conclusion. Among other cautions about application of this study, they indicate that “…it is not easy to determine if the amygdala/striatum response in CD participants is associated with positive or negative affect when watching the pain of others” (p.7). They do not, in this article, suggest that bullies are people wired to enjoy watching the pain of others. It’s clear that the various media outlets writing about this article are looking for the sensational bully headline. But this article doesn’t support Izzy’s premise that the peer-reviewed research is biased. It proves that the media, and this blog entry, are willing to take things out of context to make a story.”
So, belatedly, I looked up the study, and Gordon is right. The research paper talked only about kids with CD, and hardly mentioned bullies. I was caught red-handed misrepresenting the researchers’ report.
Now, this leaves the question, Where did the multitude of articles in the media get the idea that the study was about bullies? Did they make it up? Did they all independently read this scientific journal article about kids with CD and conclude that it is about bullies? Could it be such a coincidence that each one, on their own, came to an incorrect conclusion? Are they nothing but reporters who “are willing to take things out of context to make a story,” as Gordon asserts?
In case you aren’t familiar with how newspapers get most of their stories–and this is almost universally true regarding reports of scientific research–it is not the way you see in the movies. The stories are almost never written by zealous investigative journalists combing obscure sources in the hope of digging up information of public interest. Few newspapers have the money to pay writers to do this kind of journalism. Know where they get their stories? I’ll tell you. They get them from press releases sent out by the researchers themselves. The researchers write the stories and the newspapers, grateful for the free info, gladly reprint them, often verbatim from the press releases.
When the story about bullies enjoying others’ pain hit the worlds’ newspapers it wasn’t because these reporters all happened to stumble upon the same journal article and independently decided to take it out of context to sensationally misrepresent it in order to incite the public’s fear and loathing of bullies. It was because they all received the same press release! And who do you think sent the press release in the first place? The University of Chicago! Believe it or not, they created the headline about bullies! Yes, the people who “took things out of context to make a story” were not the media but the researchers and/or their representatives at the University. What was the title of the press release? Bullies may enjoy seeing others in pain. The researchers themselves believe that CD and bullies are one and the same. You can read the press release for yourself right here: http://news.uchicago.edu/news.php?asset_id=1477
Researchers are human beings. They want their 15 minutes of fame. They spend a tremendous time and effort doing their studies, and they want the results to be known by the world. The journal article itself was probably read by no more than a few thousand scientists, but there is little that gives researchers more pleasure than to see their results read by millions of people throughout the world. To have world-wide media coverage of their research is a major professional coup.
Had this study been published a mere decade ago, it would have never been covered by the media. It would have remained in the domain of a small group of esoteric aggression researchers. But the bully witch hunt fomented by Columbine made this story of universal interest. So the University of Chicago subtituted the word “bully” for “conduct disordered” so that the media would gobble it up.
Furthermore, as Gordon states, “Among other cautions about application of this study, they indicate that ‘…it is not easy to determine if the amygdala/striatum response in CD participants is associated with positive or negative affect when watching the pain of others’ (p.7).” In other words, the researchers aren’t even sure whether their study subjects were actually feeling pleasure. They may, in fact, have been feeling bad when observing the scenes of pain. However, this critical caution is not mentioned in the press release! As a result, the University of Chicago press release informed the world that bullies enjoy others’ pain, and you can be sure that in response to this news schools all over the modern world will be intesifying their counterproductive anti-bully campaigns.
So who are the real villains here? The media and myself, as Gordon asserts, or the researchers hungry for publicity?
One more point. Gordon (as well as some other blog readers) calls my blog entry “inflammatory.” For ten years since Columbine, anti-bully experts have been inciting the public with scientifically invalid information about bullies, scaring us with demonic descriptions of children who enjoy inflicting pain on others, promoting draconic anti-bully programs and policies that are wreaking havoc upon schools and children, and lobbying for anti-bully laws that turn children into criminals for the terrible crime of upsetting another student, yet I am the one being inflammatory? For trying to wake the public up to our misguided ways? Where is the outrage against the experts earning fortunes on books and speeches that foment hatred against the chidren of the world? We shouldn’t forget, these so-called bullies aren’t devils with horns and a tail who have just stepped out of the elevator from Hell. They are our flesh-and-blood children who are engaging in the same kinds of less-than-saintly behaviors that the rest of us routinely engage in at work and at home. In fact, the most serious and frequent bullying of all takes place right in the home, and mental health professionals and educators are no less innocent than anyone else. (Feel free to the report of my survey of mental health professionals and educators.) Let those of us who are free of sin be the first to throw the stones against bullies.