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The Anti-Bully Operation was a Success but the Patient Died

by Izzy Kalman April 8, 2009 Psychology Today Blog, A Psychological Solution to Bullying

The entire modern world is complaining that bullying is becoming an escalating problem in schools. Meanwhile, the effort to combat bullying in schools has also been escalating. No one seems to be putting two and two together. Isn’t it possible that bullying is escalating because the effort to fight it is escalating? The most intensive program of all is the classic Olweus program which is often referred to as the “gold standard.” What you are not likely to read anywhere, though I’ve heard similar things from many school personnel over the years, are things like the following:

I am an elementary teacher who is in charge of our new Olweus anti-bullying program. From some minor Internet searching, I couldn’t find anything to dispute anti-bullying program successes. Finally, I found your site. The things you wrote about how such programs can make things worse were astonishing to me. Those things are exactly what are going on in my school now. The problem is worse. I feel like such a fool for championing this program. Thank you for being out there. The reason the Olweus-inspired programs are so unreliable should be obvious to anyone who has studied human dynamics. For some reason that is unfathomable to me, I am the only one in the world who has written anything explaining what is wrong with the psychology underlying this program.

The intervention that has become the absolute darling of the anti-bully movement is enlisting bystanders to stand up for victims against bullies. It is widely touted as the most effective solution. But is this intervention really as wonderful as its proponents insist?

I’ve often said that this intervention is certainly better than punishing bullies, but it is far from an unmitigated good. It has both pluses and minuses. However, you will be hard-pressed to find anyone writing about the minuses, as though it can’t possibly have any.

Standing up against bullies hardly did 17 year-old Sharif Abdullah any good. The New York Daily News recently carried the tragic story of this teenager who was killed in Brooklyn after he stood up for the honor of a girl who was being taunted by other kids. And while we should certainly admire him for his bravery, the girl whom he stood up for, as the Daily News article relates, wasn’t in any apparent danger. She wasn’t even upset. She said, “They were just being jerks …. I didn’t even care.” But Sharif did what the bullying experts recommend that we all do, and he paid with his life. His young life was wasted for no good reason.

How about the research? What does it show about the effectiveness of bystanders defending victims from bullies? A recent study published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, conducted by University College London in conjunction with US researchers, showed the results of a program called CAPSLE (Creating a Peaceful School Learning Environment), which is centered on bystanders protecting victims from bullies. (Click here to get the University’s official report on the study results.) A second group in the study used a different anti-bullying approach. A third group used none (though this is probably not accurate, because all schools do something about bullying, whether they use an organized formal program or just haphazardly handle bullying incidents and complaints.) Guess what happened? Bullying increased during the three-year trial period!

What’s truly remarkable, though, is that the program was declared a resounding success! Reminds me of the saying, “The operation was a success, but the patient died.”

How could anyone declare an anti-bullying program a success if bullying increased during the trial period?

Because bullying in the two comparison groups went up even more! The researchers concluded that social conditions in the geographic area in which the study was conducted created an increase in bullying in general, but since the bullying in the intervention group increased less than in the other two groups used for comparison, it was a wonderful success.

What exactly happened in this geographic area in the course of three short years? Had it been a stable middle class neighborhood in which everyone suddenly got fired and moved out, and violent gangs quickly moved in to take their place?

Perhaps. But maybe a better explanation is that what the other two groups did about bullying was even worse than what the intervention group did. After all, bullying isn’t escalating only in the area the study was done. Bullying seems to be escalating in all geographic regions that are battling bullying. But researchers don’t consider the possibility that the anti-bully efforts are the cause of the escalation in bullying. They are so certain that their anti-bully interventions must be beneficial that they will praise them as successes despite their own evidence to the contrary.

For those of you who are interested in a realistic assessment of the supportive-bystander approach rather than a gushy, blind love affair with it, I will provide it here.

First, what are the pluses of teaching bystanders to stand up for victims?

1. It will succeed in stopping some incidents of bullying. 2. Victims will feel emotional relief that others are standing up for them. 3. Those standing up for victims will feel proud of themselves. 4. Kids will learn that it is good to help people who are suffering.

What are the minuses of this approach? This list is longer than the list of pluses. Admittedly, it might reflect my own bias, but as far as I know, this is the only place in the world where you will read these explanations. So I hope you will thank me for it despite my possible bias. This list should help you understand why the wonderful intervention in the research study failed to have a wonderful outcome.

1. It puts bystanders in the role of judge. As any judge will tell you, it is not always obvious who is the innocent party and who is the guilty one. Many people use their weakness to manipulate others. How are students supposed to acquire the wisdom to judge who is the good one and who is the bad one in every situation?

2. Judging is serious business. A judge, at best, can make one side happy. Both sides still hate each other, and one side hates the judge, too. Judges do not win popularity contests. There have been judges who were killed by people whom they judged against.

3. It reinforces kids for playing the victim role. They will learn that by showing distress, others step in to help them. So they will become further entrenched in their victim role.

4. Having learned that it pays to get upset because others step in to help them, kids are likely to continue getting upset when they are bullied. But getting upset is precisely what fuels the bullying. Furthermore, they will be more brazen in taking on their bullies, knowing that others will step in to take on their bullies for them, so even more bullying incidents will follow.

5. Kids will learn that it is not their responsibility to handle social difficulties on their own, but should expect others around them to solve their problems for them. What will they do when there are no bystanders around to help them? Who will be there to take their side when they grow up and are tormented by their spouses, children, in-laws, colleagues and bosses?

6. We want children to develop self-confidence and self-esteem. How can they possibly develop these traits when they are told they can’t handle bullies on their own, but need to depend upon others to help them?

7. When kids stand up against bullies, the hostilities can escalate. Is there any guarantee that the bullies will quietly give in and leave the victims alone? Just as victims are enlisting help of allies, the bullies may enlist their own allies. This is what happened to Sharif in the news story cited above.

8. Instructing kids to stand up against bullies encourages them to think of others in this demeaning manner–bullies. Rather than seeing people as basically similar but less-than-saints, they will think of anyone acting mean as a “bully,” which, as the anti-bully experts are teaching them, means a cowardly, evil person who gets pleasure in causing pain to those weaker than themselves. Such an attitude towards people can only hurt their future interpersonal relationships.

9. Kids who are taught in school that the morally correct thing is to stand up for victims against bullies are likely to continue doing so throughout their lives. But professionals who understand interpersonal dynamics know that protecting people from each other usually causes more harm than good. It is often referred to as “enabling.” When the kids grow up and become parents, they will protect their younger children from the older ones, which will cause endless sibling rivalry, destroying the home atmosphere and making themselves and their children miserable. When they feel their spouse is bullying their child, they will take their child’s side against the spouse. But this is precisely what leads many kids to become defiant. They discover that when they get one parent mad at them, the other parent defends them. Then the two parents fight each other, so it’s “divide and conquer” for the child. And this dynamic sometimes leads the couple to divorce.

10. This intervention does what anti-bully education in general does: encourages the irrational belief that we are entitled to a life in which no one is ever mean to us. This belief is likely to make us feel angry and vengeful whenever we are faced with the inevitable reality that people are often mean to us.

So, before you blindly support an intervention, consider the potential minuses as well as the pluses.

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