Monday, June 25, 2012

The Role of Group Dynamics in Bullying

There has been a lot of news coverage this week about a viral video of a group of middle school boys verbally harassing their bus monitor, including cruel comments about her weight, age, and the fact she shed tears in reaction to their comments.

Reactions from the public have been split between vilifying the boys, and collecting donations for the bus monitor. In fact, the boys have reportedly received their share of cruel comments in return, including death threats. One of their fathers appeared on the news, stating that he had not raised his son that way, and planned to take the child to therapy to figure out whether there was something more serious going on with him. A clinician who had not met the boys also got on the news talking about sociopathy.

However, before we pathologize these boys (and possibly create a self-fulfilling prophecy), I'd like to encourage everyone to slow down a bit, and not rush to judgment. Yes, the boys certainly did something wrong, and certainly should have known better. However, their behavior needn't be attributed to sociopathy. In fact, it seems much more likely that the boys were demonstrating a perfectly normal, albeit negative in this case, function of a social group.

Please don't mistake this for condoning their behavior, but let's use it as a learning opportunity for all of us - after all, the public exhibited a similar group dynamic against the boys in retaliation! Here is how I understand it:

In social groups, people are motivated to conform to the group's behavior - in other words, each individual adapts his or her behavior to more closely match that of other group members. We all do this, for a variety of reasons: we want to fit in, be liked, or at least not actively disliked; we want to be right (and assume the rest of the group is right); we want to belong - experience ourselves and be experienced by others as part of the group. The pressure to conform is quite powerful. For example, in one research study, Dr. Asch put one participant into a group of confederates (i.e., people helping the researcher, but unidentified to participants as such). Then he showed the group a line, and asked which of three other lines was the same length. It wasn't one of those optical illusions - it was supposed to be obvious which answer was correct, but the confederates intentionally gave an incorrect answer. 76% of participants agreed with the wrong answer at least once, and on average participants conformed with the group about a third of the time. And this was with adults - the pressure to conform, as we know, is much greater for young adolescents!

Sometimes this (natural) conformity leads us in positive directions, and sometimes it leads us in negative directions. What would cause it to be negative (such as group bullying)? There are various theories on what may contribute. In an earlier post on hazing, I described some possible influences, such as groupthink, and social roles. Other factors include group contagion (one person has a negative idea/impulse, which s/he may or may not consider acceptable individually, and others in the group go along with it, which validates it as acceptable to everyone), and deindividuation (people lose their sense of separate from the group, and therefore their independent evaluation of group behavior).

Add to this the boys' developmental stage, which often includes challenging the authority of adults, and I imagine the scenario thus: Somebody says something disrespectful, but not all-out mean. The bus monitor does not respond (perhaps trying to avoid reinforcing the behavior through a response). When the first boy "gets away with " being disrespectful, some other boy wants to look cool/conform, and says something a little more disrespectful. Peers reinforce the behavior by laughing, gasping, whatever - and so it continues to escalate. Each of them probably had at least one moment of thinking "this is wrong," but it was likely followed by thinking "everyone else is doing it, so maybe it's not wrong," or "if I don't at least laugh along, they're going to think I'm a loser; maybe they'll even do the same thing to me!"
I bet most of us have been in situations that felt like this - gone along with something we suspected was a bad idea. So, let's have a little compassion. Let's not use groupthink and anonymity to lash out against these children. Let's teach them, and others, that you don't always have to "go along to get along."That you can't check your moral compass at the door when you enter a group. And that we (as a group) should respect courage rather than conformity...but sometimes we don't.

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