Updated: Jul 22, 2021
Social scientists must rigorously question the anti-bullying orthodoxy.
Originally Published on April 2, 2012 by Izzy Kalman in A Psychological Solution to Bullying
An Open Letter to Social Scientists Regarding:
The First Step to Ending the Bullying Crisis
We are dedicated to the alleviation of human suffering and cherish scientific integrity as the essential means for achieving it.
The modern world is experiencing a crisis over bullying. Despite massive anti-bullying efforts, including increasingly tough anti-bullying laws, anti-bullying campaigns by world famous celebrities, and the publication of hundreds of research studies on bullying and bullying-prevention programs, bullying continues unabated. Research on the most highly regarded bullying prevention programs show that they rarely achieve more than a minor reduction in bullying and often result in an increase. When researchers find that a program resulted in a 20% reduction in bullying, they consider it a major truimph. Please explain that to those suffering from the remaining 80%. Targets of bullying continue to be miserable in school and at work and bullying-related suicides appear to be on the rise. Last year the Obama administration declared bullying to be a pandemic and called for a search for alternative solutions.
The physical sciences sent men to the moon in ten years, yet the social sciences have made no inroads in finding a reliable solution to bullying despite thirteen years of intensive effort (since the Columbine shooting on April 20, 1999).
Though many of us don’t realize it, social scientists (and this includes philosophers) have possessed the solution to bullying for thousands of years. Psychology also has had the solution for many decades. We shouldn’t be so arrogant as to think that it was only at the very end of the twentieth century that intelligent people began contemplating how to deal with aggression.
There is one thing that is absolutely necessary if we are going to rediscover the solution to bullying. We must first return to true scientific standards. And the most fundamental of all scientific standards is questioning.
Questioning is the sine qua non of science. Without it we can never find truth or correct our mistakes. Science is not religion. It has no deities and no gospel. The popular TV-star physicist Michio Kaku declared, “Even Einstein can be disproven.” Science demands that we dispassionately question everything we do and welcome others questioning it as well, for we are not always able to recognize our own biases and errors. Our search for truth is supposed to be untarnished by self-interest, including pride and money. When an experiment fails to support our hypothesis, we are supposed to reject the hypothesis regardless of how personally invested we are in its confirmation. Even when the experiment does appear to confirm our hypothesis, we still need to weigh alternative explanations for the favorable results. Perhaps even more important is the need to consider possible unintended negative consequences to our interventions.
When other scientists criticize our work, even if they turn out to be wrong, we are supposed to be grateful to them for helping us establish truth. The attempt to silence critics is an unforgiveable scientific sin.
Sadly, we have abandoned scientific integrity in the field of bullying. And as a consequence society continues to suffer.
While antibullyism has become a field of scientific endeavor, it more closely resembles a religion—a secular religion whose aim is to eradicate evil from society, for the academic definition of bullying is equivalent to the academic definition of evil.* Since this secular religion requires no belief in a deity, both theists and atheists equally embrace it. Antibullyism has an orthodox body of beliefs that has gone unquestioned despite its apparent failure.
[* Academic definition of bullying: 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. [From 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]
Academic definition of evil: Evil consists in intentionally behaving in ways that harm, abuse, demean, dehumanize, or destroy innocent others–or using one’s authority and systemic power to encourage or permit others to do so on your behalf. [from Prof. Philip Zimbardo’s book, The Lucifer Effect (page 5)]
As you can see, the definitions of bullying and evil are essentially identical.]
Albert Einstein said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Yet we are so certain of the truth of antibullyism that whenever we discover our antibullying efforts are failing, we conclude that we need to intensify them.
We have allowed ourselves to treat the creator of the field of bullying psychology, Prof. Dan Olweus, as though he were a deity. His teachings on bullying have been eagerly embraced and disseminated as fundamental truth by all other scientists who deal with bullying. To the best of my knowledge, there is not one article in any respected scientific book or journal that questions the logic of Olweus’ definitions, assumptions and proposed solution to bullying. Whenever our research shows that the orthodox, Olweus approach failed to substantially reduce bullying or even led to an increase, we never suggest that the program be abandoned but instead rationalize it as a success. To the best of my knowledge, not one researcher has attempted to consider the negative effects of the orthodox approach to bullying, as though it can’t possibly have any negative effects. There is not even an attempt to identify what such negative effects might be. Researchers are reluctant to undertake studies of programs that are not based on the orthodox approach to bullying and the professional journals desist from publishing articles critical of it. As a result, only one view is presented and it has obtained the status of gospel truth.
Whenever we dare to question the bullying orthodoxy, we are immediately attacked or, at best, ignored. 2009 saw the publication of Reclaiming Childhood: Freedom and play in an age of fear, the first scholarly book in the world to criticize the anti-bullying movement, and its author, developmental psychologist Prof. Helene Guldberg, was immediately attacked by anti-bullying organizations.
Recently, one of the country’s leading suicide researchers, Dr. Eric Caine, wrote an article declaring that anti-bullying laws cannot stop suicides. Legal experts have warned that anti-bullying laws can’t work. Nevertheless, these experts are ignored or attacked and social scientists continue to call for tougher anti-bullying laws whenever there is news of another bullying related tragedy.
On December 16, 2011, a bright and courageous anthropologist, Dr. Janice Harper, wrote an article for her Huffington Post blog called “The Top Ten Reasons to Rethink Anti-Bully Hysteria.” Though Dr. Harper wrote about bullying in general, without mentioning any individuals, Dr. Gary Namie, our nation’s leading workplace bullying consultant, saw her use of the term “hysteria” as a personal threat to his status as one of “the originators and chief spokespersons” [his self-description] of antibullyism and countered with a sophisticated but condescending deprecation of her and her work. He claims that because his antibullyism was motivated by his wife’s victimization in the workplace, his views are objective, but because Harper was herself a victim of workplace bullying, her emotions render her views biased and invalid. And how does he manage, may we wonder, to keep his thinking from being influenced by his financial interest in his highly lucrative anti-bullying consulting business? Philosophers and psychologists have long known that people fail to see their own faults while readily seeing them in others, and rationalize their own behavior to avoid experiencing cognitive dissonance. Anti-bullying activists freely bully their critics with no awareness that they are engaging in the very behavior they are condemning in others.
Truly scientific attitudes would result in enthusiastic responses such as:
“Thank you so much, Prof. Guldberg, for explaining what is wrong with our efforts to protect kids from bullying!”
“We are so grateful to you, Dr. Caine, for trying to warn us against putting our hopes on anti-bullying laws to prevent suicide!”
“Thank you, Dr. Harper, for suggesting that we have been unwittingly fostering mass hysteria! We hadn’t considered this possibility! Please elaborate!”
Instead, we want to humiliate critical voices into silence.
The purpose of scientific research is to reveal truth. Philosophers have known for millennia that money corrupts. We need to be particularly wary of scientific research conducted by people who are running a business that sells their services. It is almost irresistible for them to use their research to promote marketing at the expense of objective truth.
The leading researchers who conduct the studies on the Olweus program work for the Olweus company. They write papers in which they selectively present and interpret their statistics to make the results appear more positive than they actually are, and our peer-reviewed journals eagerly and uncritically publish them. The Olweus company advertises its program as “the most researched,” as though the number of studies conducted is an indication of its effectiveness. Then the Olweus company spends millions of dollars on public relations to convince the schools and organizations of the world to purchase their “research based” program. Their marketing materials conveniently neglect to inform potential customers of the unimpressive results of the multitudinous research.
The greatest stroke of genius leading to the phenomenal marketing success of the Olweus company is probably the founder’s insistence on the need to lobby for anti-bullying legislation based on his teachings. When scientists lobby for laws, they are in essence declaring, “We are so absolutely certain of the correctness of our solution that we demand the government impose it upon all of society and force the taxpayers to pay for it.” The Olweus researchers are doing this though they are fully aware not only of the independent research showing the lackluster effectiveness of their program but also of their own mediocre research results. Furthermore, the same researchers who advocate for the Olweus approach have also become the government’s advisors on bullying and the monitors of states’ compliance with the anti-bullying laws they have imposed upon us. Thus, they have created a situation whereby society has no choice but to implement the Olweus paradigm, if not the Olweus program per se. When it comes to bullying, it doesn’t seem to disturb us that we are hiring the fox to guard the henhouse.
The Olweus company is not the only one that creatively misrepresents research findings for marketing purposes. It is the rare company in any field, whether bullying, cosmetics, weight loss, medicine, automobiles or cigarettes, that doesn’t do so. That’s why you’ll see small-print disclaimers in virtually all advertisements that make grand pronouncements of their products’ effectiveness. One field from which these disclaimers are glaringly absent is bullying.
A recent study of the KiVa program showed a small reduction in some kinds of bullying. Yet their advertising brochure declares, “There is no bullying in a KiVa school”! A recent study of the Steps to Respect program showed that bullying increased during the study, but it increased slightly more in the control schools. Despite the increase in bullying, the paper, published in a peer-reviewed journal, states, “Results of this study support the program as an efficacious intervention for the prevention of bullying in schools.” And their website makes the same claim about the study without any mention that it resulted in an increase in bullying.
Why are we allowing this to happen without question? There are two general reasons.
One is because the philosophy of antibullyism is irresistibly seductive. We love what it teaches and don’t want anything to challenge our belief in its fidelity.
Life is not Heaven. We all know the pain of being victimized. In fact, the place we are most likely to be intimately familiar with this pain is not in school or at work but at home, within the family. It is also human nature to blame others for our misery, to see ourselves as the good guys and them as the bad guys who need to change. So we readily sympathize with victims and want the government to eradicate bullies from society. At long last we have a school of psychology that validates our primitive beliefs that others are indeed to blame for our misery and that it’s society’s responsibility to make them change. (We conveniently fail to consider that this same psychology encourages others to call us bullies and to blame us for their misery.) Because we desperately want the research to confirm the success of this psychology, we develop amnesia for scientific standards and fail to subject the bullying studies to rigorous criticism. As long as the researchers incorporate appropriate control groups and correctly apply complex mathematical formulas to their data, the assumptions and conclusions they present are likely to be accepted by the peer-reviewers, who like the assumptions and conclusions.
The second reason is that antibullyism is a response to panic–panic generated by bullying-related school shootings and suicides. Panic interferes with logical thinking as we become concerned with safety. Desperately hoping to prevent future tragedies, we become willing to give up our freedom and money to those who claim to have the power to protect us from the bad guys and bring them to justice. And that is exactly what Olweus gives us–a promise of a bully-free society. With every new bullying-related tragedy, we panic again and eagerly give the Olweus proponents additional power.
After years of implementing the Olweus paradigm, the hope of a bully-free society remains just that–a hope.
To turn our hopes for a bully-free society into reality, we need to distance ourselves from our primitive emotions and reclaim our full intellectual heritage. We social scientists have studied a variety of psychological theories to get our degrees. We have had courses in developmental psychology, psychopathology, methods of counseling and psychotherapy, social psychology, group dynamics, social biology/evolutionary psychology and anthropology. Many of us have studied philosophy and religion. We have been studying aggression forever and have developed successful ways of understanding and reducing it. We have so much knowledge at our disposal. Do we really want to trade it all in for a legalistic bullying field that views social dynamics as an amalgam of evil bullies, innocent victims and collusive bystanders, and insists that society can get rid of intolerant behavior by refusing to tolerate it? Did we study for years in order to become glorified police officers mandated by law to protect people from each other and to punish or reform anyone who is accused of being a bully?
My fellow social scientists, there is an urgent problem we need to solve. The very first step is to reexamine the orthodox bullying psychology with scientific integrity. Otherwise, we will be stuck with the current dismal results and be precluded from ever finding a better approach.
And if you firmly believe in the orthodox Olweus approach, you have nothing to fear from having it rigorously questioned. It could be that the scrutiny will reveal that it truly is the “gold standard” that should be emulated by everyone. But you will never be sure of this until we ask the necessary questions.
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