Bullying In and Out of Schools
What Makes a Bully?
The Swedish psychologist Dan Olweus, long associated with the University of Bergen in Norway, is considered the foremost authority on bullying. In 1970 he conducted the first large-scale scientific study of the subject. In 1983, when three adolescent boys in Northern Norway committed suicide in response to bullying, Olweus was recruited to create an intervention to stop bullying. The Olweus Bullying Prevention Program has subsequently been used throughout Norway with some success (30 to 70 percent). Its results have been less impressive in the United States, Germany, and Belgium (5 to 30 percent), possibly because of cultural differences. Despite this, his research regarding bullies remains the gold standard. Olweus sees bullying as a “component of a more generally antisocial and rule-breaking (‘conduct-disordered’) behavior pattern.” Aggressive behavior is a stabile trait, meaning that an aggressive child usually grows up to be an aggressive adult. Bullies have an increased risk of alcoholism and criminality later in life. A Finnish study, “From a Boy to a Man,” followed 2,540 boys from the age of eight for a decade. Boys identified as bullies in middle school often exhibited antisocial personality disorder (criminal behavior), substance abuse, and problems of anxiety and depression as young adults. Olweus, following 87 boys from age 12 to age 24, found that over half of those who were bullies in grades 6 through 9 had at least one criminal conviction by the age of 24, and over a third had three or more convictions (this compared to a criminal conviction rate among non-bullies of about 1 out of 10).
While those who were bullied as children can often escape their tormentors as adults, they cannot escape themselves. They are likely to suffer from depression and low self-esteem. While girls are bullied less frequently than boys, their outcomes are worse. A Finnish study found them more likely to have had at least one psychiatric hospitalization and been prescribed antipsychotic, antidepressant, and antianxiety drugs as adults.
Olweus has identified five risk factors that predispose a child to becoming a bully:
- Parents did not bond with the child when he or she was an infant.
- Parents failed to inhibit the child’s aggression.
- Parents model aggression and physical violence as their pri¬mary problem-solving strategies (Olweus calls it “power-assertive child-rearing methods”).
- The child has an inborn penchant toward aggressive and impulsive behavior (Olweus calls it “an active and ‘hot-headed’ temperament”).
- The child is larger and stronger than other children his age.
Let’s examine these risk factors more closely.
Lack of a Parental Bond
Olweus refers to parental bonding as the “basic emotional attitude of the primary caretaker” to the infant. He goes on to say that this kind of parent-child relationship is “characterized by lack of warmth and involvement.” John Bowlby, who wrote copiously about this subject, calls it “insecure attachment.” In prefeminist writings, the caregiver is always assumed to be the mother, but in the current culture we believe it can as easily be the father, grandparent, nanny, or adoptive parent. In chapter 1 we talked about the human longing to be part of a group. The parent-child “dyad” (a group of two) is everyone’s first experience of a group. Most children first show awareness of this around six months of age when the architecture of the brain has reached a certain level of complexity, about the same time that infants become toddlers. Before that age, children seem equally happy with any caretaker who comforts or amuses them. After that, they want and need their mothers and become anxious around strangers. The importance of the mother-child dyad may seem obvious to us but was more or less ignored by the scientific community prior to the twentieth century. It only became a worthy object of investigation because of society’s changing attitude toward children after World War I and public concern over the many children orphaned and displaced by that terrible conflict.
Orphaned infants who had been hospitalized during the war lost weight on diets that should have helped them grow, grew quiet and sad despite their clean and organized surroundings, and had a shockingly high mortality rate (as high as 75 percent for two-year-olds in a report from 1915).Such children also showed language deficits and lower IQs than their nonhospitalized peers. The condition was referred to as “hospitalism” and, later, “failure to thrive.” The cause was thought to be malnutrition or infection of some kind. Efforts were made to further isolate babies to prevent the spread of infection, but that only made them more listless. In 1931 Harry Bakwin, a doctor in charge of the pediatric unit at Bellevue Hospital in New York City and a professor at New York University Medical School, reasoned that these infants were responding to a lack of human contact. He took down signs that had been placed around the ward emphasizing antisepsis (“Wash your hands twice before entering this ward”) and replaced them with signs encouraging cuddling and cooing (“Do not enter this nursery without picking up a baby”).
The problems of maternal deprivation were not only physiological. Psychological damage was also evident, not just in the form of depression, which was often obvious, but more subtly in a lack of empathy. An early example of this was noted in a scientific paper by David Levy published in 1937. Levy, a prominent New York psychoanalyst and one of the leaders of the child guidance movement, described an eight-year-old girl who had been adopted after years of being shuttled between foster homes who showed antisocial traits such as lying, manipulation, and superficial emotionality. He speculated as to whether there might be a “deficiency disease of the emotional life, comparable to a deficiency of vital nutritional elements within the developing organism.” Many child welfare workers reported that they were familiar with this kind of behavior in children separated from their mothers at an early age or shuttled between foster homes.
Meanwhile in England, John Bowlby, a perceptive and gifted psychiatrist, graduate of the Tavistock Psychoanalytic Institute, and director of the London Child Guidance Clinic, had noticed commonalities in 44 children who had been referred to his agency for thievery. In his own words:
in several cases sympathetic discussions with the mothers of the children revealed that their apparent love for their child was only one aspect of their feelings about him. Often an intense, though perhaps unadmitted, dislike and rejection of him also came to light. Furthermore very careful enquiries showed a remarkable proportion of children who, for one reason or another, had not lived securely in one home all their lives but had spent long periods away from home.
Every new mother wants to be part of the group that might be called Good Mothers. The first rule for membership is that the Good Mother loves her child so much that she would give up her life for him or her. Some of these mothers did not feel that way about their children, although they hid the truth beneath a layer of socially acceptable patter. In other cases, chaotic family lives and frequent relocations had interfered with the creation of a stabile caregiver bond.
Other caregivers may substitute for mothers, an issue that is becoming more pertinent as our culture comes to accept the idea that a same-sex couple can successfully raise a family. Neither a blood relationship nor a particular gender is necessary. For centuries the children of the British upper class have been raised by devoted nannies. In situations where parents are preoccupied with other concerns, grandparents and aunts and uncles are often successful substitutes. Extended families, a rarity in this country, offer a variety of individuals who are willing to form a strong attachment with an infant.
Shortly after the publication of my previous book on school shooters, I received an email from a young man (we will call him Carter). I include the letter verbatim because the process of his writing it was as important as its content.
Dear Dr. Fast,
[Your book] dredged up an old memory, one whose details I could stand to be free of. I must apologize, but I need to tell someone this, and you may be in a position to appreciate my story. If not, I am sorry for wasting your time, and I wish you the best of luck with your book.
I almost disemboweled Matt P. in seventh grade, and I’ve spent years regretting it.
For the first few years, I regretted being unable to carry out the act; later I was upset that I was willing to do such a thing. My motivations switched one hundred eighty degrees, but the guilt was constant.
Matt P. was a year older than I was, bigger, and less bookish. I wasn’t particularly sociable or charismatic in middle school, and was physically dominated by those further along in puberty, like Matt. I suppose this is the wont of every teenager in my position, but I was frightened and furious. I had fully expected that the adults, who I had imagined up until that time controlled the universe, would have in their foresight forbidden such actions, but they had failed … and I got beat up. Every time I was bounced off the lockers or shoved to the ground or called a faggot, I kept thinking that it was an unsympathetic Fate, in the person of Matt P., challenging me to do something about the apparent insouciance of the universe.
“I’m going to kick your ass, and what are you going to do about it?” he asked.
So, after getting socked in the gut one time too many after gym class, I went home, and by accident, I found the knife. When my dad left, he hadn’t taken all of his tools. Under his workbench, I found a Buck Special with a drop point and a nine-inch blade, sharp as the day it was bought, lying dusty and forgotten in its sheath next to the spackle and the block planes.
I cannot explain how comforting it was to pull the knife from its sheath, and to feel the cool mass of it in my hand, and to hear the soft ringing of the blade when I brushed my thumb-tip against it. I knew then that I found my answer for Matt.
Nobody noticed that I had taken the knife. I put it in my gym bag, next to my socks and my cup, and I immediately felt better. I kept it there for a few weeks. I knew, I just knew, that I’d get assaulted again, and I just had to have the bag next to me, and be curled up on the ground at the feet of my attacker, where I could draw the knife forth.
I thought about a stab to the heart second. I first thought of the throat, which I immediately deprecated—Matt was taller than I was, and I hadn’t the length of arm. I had little arm of any sort. We had learned that the heart was behind a heavy curtain of ribs, and inside a tough pericardial sac—our Life Science teacher, an ex-nurse, taught us about how tough the chest cavity was for surgeons with skill and the right tools to get through. Let alone amateurs acting under duress with hunting knives.
No, it’d have to be the gut.
My plan was to let him hit me. I’d curl up around my gym bag, with my right hand slid inside, gripping the knife. Knowing Matt, a helpless victim in a fetal position would be an invitation to lean over and deliver a wedgie or a just a thin filament of spit down the back of the neck, or perhaps just a whispered invidious remark about one’s parentage. Then, I would pull the knife, brace the heel of my left hand against the pommel, and, rolling back onto my heels and standing up, I’d drive the point of the knife into his stomach, right below the xiphoid process. The trick then would be to keep the blade angled down, and let him stand up to complete the evisceration. He’d be surprised, and then he’d die, painfully.
My thoughts past this point weren’t terribly clear. Matt P. would be dead, and I wouldn’t have to worry about him anymore. I had very little concern for the future, which was for me at least a foreshortened and not terribly interesting place. I had the present to worry about.
I was never able to do it. Mostly, the opportunity was never right. My plan was predicated on a particular choreography of bully and bully-ee that never came out quite right. At first, I was waiting for the perfect place and time … and then, there was the dinner.
My school had a Grandparent’s Dinner every year. Students were expected to bring their grandparents or great-aunts or uncles in for a rubber chicken dinner and a speech from the Principle. There was an exhibit of athletic trophies and academic awards and student artwork. Everybody left with a better feeling of community and some indigestion. My grandparents would not have missed Grandparent’s Dinner for the world, and so I went to sign up. The reservation sheet was tacked to the Principle’s door, and Matt P.’s name was on it.
Up until that point, I really didn’t consider Matt to be human. He was just the entity who made my life miserable Monday through Friday, eight to two-fifteen. The notion of him having grandparents was an epiphany, pregnant with implications, like NASA finding an empty Fresca can on Mars. Were I to kill, or seriously injure Matt, some old Italian Nana I’d never met would likely be very upset. Unlike her grandson, I didn’t wish her any harm at all.
To say nothing of the reaction from my own grandparents …
Then, as now, the thought of sorrowful old people upsets me terribly. I realized with growing frustration that I could endure more bullying than I could the thought of weeping old ladies. The knife stayed in the bottom of my locker until the last day of school, when I brought it home in a shoebox underneath a stack of old quizzes.
I’d like to say that Matt P. had a similar revelation, and he made up with me and everyone else he had kicked the shit out of. To the best of my knowledge, he didn’t. The funny thing was, even as I got beat up, I’d think about why I could never make Matt regret what he was doing; and I’d start to laugh. Sometimes that made him hit me harder, but eventually he started to think me laughing was funny too. I learned, quite by accident, that comedy could keep the bullies off me, and that worked until I was big enough to take care of myself.
I could never hurt him, but at the same time, I could never stop hating him. I’m a coward for never going through with it, and I’m a lunatic for how intent I was on killing him for so long. I know I chose right, but I can see how tremendously appealing the wrong choice is.
As for the mechanism—eh. My dad kept his guns locked up. I’d have used ’em in a heartbeat, but I didn’t want to drag my parents into it, and I figured the gun would’ve drawn more attention than the knife. Besides, guns were a little too impersonal. I wanted to be able to see him die, and for him to know that it was me that killed him. Had I two dozen bullies to make an end of, expediency would’ve pushed me towards firearms.
This would have been a ceremony indeed; for whatever psychological or societal reasons I came close to killing for (and others DID kill for), these will always be feasts for Baal; if this kind of action is so horrible, why was his cult once so popular?
Thank you Doctor, for listening to me.
The letter itself is an example of positively managing shame by processing, or confessing. Carter wrote about “an old memory, one whose details I could stand to be free of” and how he “needed to tell someone this.” Even now, years after the event, he still needed to talk about it, to manage it. Because I seemed knowledgeable, sympathetic, and nonjudgmental regarding people with violent impulses, Carter decided to confide in me. According to his letter, he was small and a late bloomer, and was repeatedly bullied by Matt, who was “bigger and less bookish.” This is an example of the unequal power differential that is always present in bullying. For Carter, his father’s knife promised a way of managing the shame through “attack other.” Carter seems to have strongly bonded with his grandparents, and the fact that Matt had grandparents too humanized him. One could speculate that if Carter had grown up with no adult bond, Matt might have remained less than human, and a target for Carter’s father’s knife. Carter also learned that shame can be managed through humor.
A few questions occurred to me while reading this, and I wrote back asking him about resilience factors, such as friendships and memberships in groups. This was his response:
I didn’t have that many friends growing up. Most of the time, the problem is me. I didn’t like social occasions from an early age, and to this day I have a problem with people. I can deal with one or two other persons in a room with me at an informal gathering, but any more than that, and I start to get nervous. Classrooms are a little easier (only a little), but parties are torture. Given the choice, I’d rather go someplace quiet and read a book. I hate doing that though, I don’t want people to think I’m rude or haughty. So I smile, and endure. So I made few friends—what ones I had I was (and am) very attached to.
I also asked Carter about his connection with his parents. Carter replied that his home life had been chaotic. His parents did not earn enough money to support a family and were often in conflict. During the first eight years of Carter’s life, they moved three times. He rarely saw his father, who worked double shifts through the night, or his mother, who worked part-time and had gone back to college.
Very often, they would be tired, and frustrated and angry. My sister and I were hit when necessary, but sometimes Mom or Dad would fly off the handle and start throwing things, or slamming doors or Mom would be crying and Dad would peel out of the driveway, and come home very late at night. There would be much weeping and shouting, especially as I got older. I was never certain what mood either of my parents was going to be in when I got home from school. Depression? Hair-trigger rage? Something like ordinary moods?
Carter and his younger sister often stayed with their maternal or paternal grandparents, who were loving and attentive. Another source of resilience for him was a golden retriever he got when he was eight.
For the next sixteen years, he [the golden retriever] was the most even-tempered and reliable member of my family, even though he couldn’t speak English and had trouble answering the phone. He was often the only one my sister and I could go to when we were upset, and while he couldn’t give advice, he was a good listener.
Years later, reflecting on my mother’s depression throughout my childhood and adolescence, and my father’s long absence, someone remarked that, effectively, I had been raised by the dog.
I still prefer golden retrievers to people, most of the time.
So while his parental bond may have been fragile, his attachment to his grandparents was robust, and he could use it as a basis for understanding the sentience and humanity of another human being. Once he had experienced this revelation, he could transfer his empathic feelings to others.
The dependability of the caregiver bond also shapes our response to temporary loss of the caregiver, a common event in everyone’s life. Consider a toddler who has formed a successful bond with his father. He approaches his father with the expectation of a piggyback ride around the backyard. The father, who is engrossed by a phone call about the bake sale he is organizing for daycare, gently pushes him aside.
Depending on his temperament, he may cry and scream as though his heart is broken. Rejection seems tragic and permanent for a little guy with a foggy sense of past and future. When his father gets off the phone, he comforts him and takes him for a piggyback ride around the yard. Soon the child is giggling, and the temporary rejection is forgotten. The child has learned that people are reliable, that a few moments of being ignored may not be a sign of permanent abandonment, that hugging and comforting by a close companion can ease the pain. The next time, separation will be easier for him. A year from now he will be able to think to himself, Well, Daddy is busy right now but he will play with me later, with only a hint of sadness and no shame at all. He knows, after a number of repetitions, that his membership in the dyad of Me and My Dad is secure.
Now imagine a different kind of caregiver, a woman who, for whatever reasons, numbs herself to her shame with some kind of addiction. Her toddler may never learn how to properly manage the discomfort of temporary separation because the addiction has made her unreliable. Her judgment may be impaired, her memory subject to lapses, her perception of reality altered. She says, I’ll be with you in a minute, but often the minutes stretch into hours, and sometimes she remains emotionally or physically unavailable for days. Other people, alleged providers of childcare, come and go but do not stay long enough to create a real caregiver bond. To complicate matters, this mother’s feelings toward her toddler may be ambivalent or resentful. Children may be viewed as nothing more than an impediment to her getting high.
All children realize that they should be loved by their caregivers. Toddlers blame the absence of this love on themselves and attribute it to a personal deficit: I am not loved because something is wrong with me. As a result, toddlers may find it difficult to believe that any person would love someone as damaged as they are. This kind of shame is not easily managed. It may endure for a lifetime, shaping one’s personality in myriad ways that spoil the quality of life. Such people may consider themselves unworthy of a good job, a loving spouse, or other satisfactions. Their anger toward the hand they have been dealt may be turned against themselves in the form of anorexia, cutting, and suicide attempts. If the anger is turned outward, they may be unable to accept responsibility for their own failures and shortcomings. They may come to resent those who might have aided and befriended them. In the worst cases, their thoughts may become confused, they may harm others for reasons that temporarily seem logical with no sense of the consequences, as was very nearly the case with Carter.
Which of these scenarios becomes the reality depends on the balance of risk factors and resilience factors. Having an extended family is often a resilience factor because many adults are available for the child to attach to, if the parents are in crisis of some kind. Special talent in the arts or sports is also a resilience factor because they increase a child’s sense of self-worth. Being born into a middle-class or wealthy family is a resilience factor because parents have more resources when a crisis arises. When Donald Trump was expelled from high school, for example, his parents had the resources to send him to a military academy where experienced teachers “straightened him out.” Unfortunately, resilience factors do not balance out risk factors in a tidy or calculable way. There are no algorithms to predict who will become a delinquent and who an asset to society. James Garbarino, an authority on violence and children, reminds us that “Rarely, if ever, does one single risk factor tell the whole story or determine a person’s future. Rather, it is the buildup of negative influences and experiences that accounts for differences in how youth turn out.” He likens dealing with risk factors to juggling balls. One can manage two easily, or three with a little practice, but add a fourth and keeping the balls in the air becomes a challenge. The more risk factors, the greater the likelihood of dropping the ball.
Parents’ Failure to Inhibit Child’s Aggression
Little children naturally express themselves physically, and sometimes violently, because their responses are unfiltered, quick, and thoughtless. Because they the patience, self-moderation, impulse control, and verbal skills required to identify and articulate what they are experiencing, they act out. They perform a mime show choreographed by anger or frustration. When a parent tells a child to “Use your words,” rather than to strike out, he or she is acknowledging that talk is a safer, more socially acceptable and precise means of communicating feelings—including negative, frightening feelings like shame and anger—and one that, when it becomes habit, will help the child attain a better life. Children who have learned to identify their own feelings and have the self-control to step back and formulate their thoughts—and the vocabulary to express them—are less likely to engage in a violent act than children who do not have these resources.
If the parent tolerates a child’s acts of aggression, or encourages them, the aggression is likely to increase. Some children are harder to rein in because of developmental delays, autism, impulsivity, or attention deficit disorder. Again, wealthy parents have the advantage in obtaining specialized help. Some children may consider parental tolerance of their aggression as an expression of indifference, a lack of love and caring, or even rejection. Children who feel unloved are willing to go anywhere for a sense of family. They may obtain this in school, if they are appealing to teachers and have a hunger to learn, or they might find it in a neighborhood street gang, often a stepping stone to a criminal career.
Parents Model Aggression and Physical Violence
Some parents model aggression and physical violence as their primary problem-solving strategy (“power-assertive child-rearing methods” in Olweus’s words). Such parents are often raised “by the stick” themselves. The way our parents disciplined us is imprinted in our own child minds as the “right way,” and it is often difficult, despite our best intentions, to avoid falling under their spell when we ourselves become parents. The distinguished criminologist Cathy Widom has demonstrated convincingly that violent parents do, more often than not, rear violent children, but how much of that is genetic, or related to parenting style, remains unclear.
A parent who responds violently to provocations is modeling a style of problem-solving based on superior size and strength and the power to intimidate. Violent behavior comes with a beguiling reward—an intoxicating sense of power—but one gained at a high price. The writings of extremely violent people continually describe the self-respect they attain through their misbehavior. An act of violence makes the offender feel that he is acting in a decisive way, that he or she has taken control of the situation through his or her own strength, directly, immediately, and incontestably. Shame is replaced by a feeling of grandiosity. A second, neurological process occurs at the same time. The body is pumped up with adrenalin and neurotransmitters are released, creating a highly pleasurable sensation that indiscriminately obliterates bad feelings in the same way as alcohol or drugs. On Nathanson’s compass of shame, it combines two poles, avoidance and attack other. Caregivers who violently enforce their dictums are attempting to manage their own shame at the expense of their family. They reinforce a cycle of violence and a cycle of shame.
Child Has an Inborn Penchant Toward Aggressive and Impulsive Behavior
Some children are born more aggressive or headstrong than others. Whether children are ever born without any capacity for empathy and what we call conscience remains to be seen. At certain times in history, psychologists have espoused a “bed seed” theory of antisocial behavior. There seems to be a pendulum in thinking about this subject that swings back and forth between the decades. In 1954, when the pendulum was in full swing toward nature (as opposed to nurture), William March wrote a best-selling novel called The Bad Seed28 about a little girl, the product of an affluent home and loving parents, who murders a playmate out of spite. People found the idea creepy enough to propel it to best-sellerdom. It became a hit Broadway show and a popular movie.
Authorities on antisocial behavior, including Hervey Cleckly, who wrote the classic treatise on the subject,29 and Robert Hare, who created the “psychopath checklist,” agree that both biological and environmental factors contribute to the making of the psychopath or sociopath (a term used informally to identify a milder level of the problem).
The best evidence for this comes from an area of research called “twin studies.” In a twin study, researchers locate pairs of identical and non-identical twins who were separated at birth and adopted by different families. The quality in question—in this case psychopathic—is measured for each of the twins, often by a questionnaire, and the results are compared. If the scores are more equal between identical twins than fraternal twins, that suggests that the problem is genetic, since identical twins share all their DNA while fraternal twins share only half. If their scores vary randomly, it suggests that the effect may be due to the environment. Twin studies of psychopathic behavior suggest that psychopathy is biological and environmental, nature and half nurture. However, we do not know what genes, or combinations of genes (alleles), are responsible and precisely how they affect behavior to bring about these conditions.
The idea that children are born with a criminal inclination is offensive to some who choose to believe, based on experience or ideology, that all children are born good or are blank slates upon which any future can be writ. Some years ago I gave a lecture at New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services, the organization that provides services to children of families who have been reported for violent or neglectful treatment of their children. I spoke to a group of 20 women employees who had dedicated their lives to working with children who had been taken from their homes because of conditions dreadful beyond what most of us can imagine. I asked them how many believed that some children were born bad. Not one raised her hand.
When Olweus writes of this factor, he emphasizes that the “temperament of the child… is in part inherited… The effect of this factor is less powerful than those of the [previously] mentioned conditions” (my italics). I believe he makes this point because he does not want to give the impression that any child, regardless of the temperament with which he or she is born, lacks the potential to be a worthy and productive adult.
Size and Strength of the Child
The fifth factor concerns the size and strength of the child. A male bully is usually physically stronger and larger than others his age. That is usually the source of his authority.
Angus Watson, a British journalist who writes on a variety of subjects, described his own experience as a school bully when he was nine. While he appeared as a good citizen to his teachers and older students, he was feared by his classmates—and rightly so. He was bigger and stronger than others in his class and, by his own admission, nastier.
I discovered that one way of amusing my friends was to taunt other children. I became a ringleader and people began to look up to me, which suited me just fine.
I became an expert at giving boys dead arms, dead legs and knuckle dusters (a stiff rap to the skull with the central knuckle). I could hit an earlobe from five yards with a high-velocity elastic band, push a boy over in the mud and mock him for any physical defect. Several boys would look up nervously when I came into a teacher-free room.
It’s possible I helped make life a misery for several other children. Weaker boys were just accessories to my fun. My cronies and I didn’t think of ourselves as unpleasant thugs but as heroes: as far as we could see, we were the winners and weaker people were there for our amusement, to add glory to our adventures. What to an observer may have seemed horrific was, for us, innocent fun. It didn’t seem we were doing anything wrong; it was just how things worked. I was a bigger boy fulfilling his role in child culture. Violence was currency passed from strong to weak.
After describing a particularly nasty and theatrical act of cruelty committed by a fellow bully, Watson escalated his aggression.
Bullying took on a crueller and more imaginative twist. Breaking expensive Caran d’Ache pencils while their owners watched, teasing them about their mothers’ hairstyles, throwing sticks dipped in sheep-poo at them, and so on. Pretty horrible stuff, and certainly nothing to remember with pride. So why did I do it? …
It was part of my childhood culture. My big brother whacked me with happy regularity, as did all my dormitory captains at boarding school. One particular prefect would make us drink water until we were sick. Another made my friend cut me with an army tin opener.
My friends and I used to stab each other, and ourselves, with compasses for amusement. We used to spray deodorant from very close on to our skin, making it blister. I still have scars from that. Pain was all around. Bullying, I suppose, was a way of passing this on to the weaker boys.
Watson had been shamed by a variety of older children, and this was his opportunity to manage the emotion by inflicting it on other, smaller children and also on his friends and himself. Using one shame management strategy (attack other) does not stop a bully from occasionally using another (attack self).
By his own account, the event that cured Watson of his bullying involved the discovery of girls.
Then, in the summer holidays when I was 12, I hung out with a group of girls for the first time, in the seaside village where we used to go on holiday … For their amusement, I roughed up a couple of younger boys down on the seafront. The girls pointed out what an idiot I was and said they didn’t want to be friends with someone who behaved like this … Whether it was a sudden revelation, growing older or, more likely, an increasing desire to impress girls, everything became clear.
The long-term taunting and physical bullying stopped, and I encouraged my friends not to bully, too. I suddenly saw how awful I looked.34
Watson wanted to join a group of higher status, Boys Who Socialize With Girls, but was rejected because of his bullying behavior. He changed his behavior in response to “reintegrative shaming”—the shame that brings one back into a group. He was not simply pretending to change: the shaming brought about a change of consciousness, an awakening of empathy.
Read Brain, Child’s Q&A with Jonathan.