Thursday, November 11, 2010

Bullying and Incentives

Human nature and human motivations are rarely simple. Pithy rhetoric and evocative examples cannot paper over the fact that the same actions and incentives will motivate some people (often lots of people), but will always manage to frustrate and deter others. This is made more difficult by the fact that people often make statements about principles that are really just stories from their own lives with the names removed. But since they're phrased as principles, they end up in inevitable conflict with other people who have different principles which are really just different stories from their own lives.

There's been an interesting thread going on Hacker News about bullying. It started with this quite moving post by Single Dad Laughing, where he talks about what it was like to be bullied. It ends with a plea for adults and contemporaries to show more love for bullies, so that they will be less likely to be mean to those around them:

So, please, I beg you. If you're an adult, put your arm around your own kids. Put your arm around your neighbor's kids. Put your arm around every kid you can. If you're a student, put your arm around the bully and the bullied. You simply don't know what person needs to feel like somebody loves her. You simply don't know what person's life you will save by showing him that, today, you care. And tomorrow you'll still care.
Regardless of whether this is actually good policy or not, I think it's a very good mark of character to be able to look back years later and forgive. Had I been bullied like that, my attitudes with respect to bullies would probably be closer to Kurtz's edict to "Exterminate all the brutes!".

It did however prompt this reply from Sebastian Marshall, where he says that the bullied are much better off fighting back, even if they lose:
But son, as soon as someone puts their hands on you, they've crossed a line. @#$% them up. It's the only thing these vicious freaks understand. They're wild animals. They make violence on you, you need to show them that you're the stronger, bigger animal. When someone attacks you maliciously for no reason, you need to impose your will on them.
Even if you lose, lose swinging. They respect it. Be a tough fight.
This "talk it out" $#!* doesn't work, it's been the dogma for the last 30-50 years, it assumes the nobility of human nature will win out. It doesn't. It's nonsense. It just simply doesn't work.
I think the best summary of this position was from commenter 'Legion', in terms of advice to his future children:
"You are allowed to defend yourself. You will avoid physical conflict whenever possible, but should you ever be physically threatened or subject to ongoing torment, you have the GREEN LIGHT to use physical force to protect yourself, OR to assist a friend who is unable to protect themselves."
"You may get in trouble with your school. THIS IS OK. Your well-being is more important than their rules. If you get suspended for three days, then I'll take three days off work and we'll keep up with your studies. I will be on your side. Do not let concern over the school rules stop you at all from defending yourself."
"However, you will never use force to do anything but protect yourself or your friend. If I find that YOU have been the aggressor, I will smite you."
Single Dad posted a follow-up that noted that he didn't actually say that the bullied should be trying to reach out to bullies, but rather adults and contemporaries around them.

What I find interesting about this whole exchange is that disagreement about the basic premises of bullying doesn't mean that these policies are mutually exclusive.

Reasonable people disagree deeply on why men do evil things.

The Single Dad Laughing premise seems to be that nasty bullying actions by kids tend to indicate a response to feelings of inadequacy, loneliness, and a desire to inflict hurt on a world that has been cruel to you, usually to make up for a lack of love from those around you. In this view, if you make the person feel wanted, you take away the underlying source of their nasty behaviour. To my mind, the best evidence in favour of this proposition is the fact that a lot of bullies do tend to be generally unhappy, and don't have many actual friends.   Additionally, bullies can grow out of their behaviour when their life circumstances change.

The Sebastian Marshall premise is instead that some people are just inherently mean, and can only be deterred, not reasoned with or made to become your friend. Psychologically, bullying gives the feeling of power and control over a weaker person, which some people enjoy as a mark of status and respect. I think the best evidence in favour of this is that bullies are usually very careful in picking their targets - they deliberately avoid people likely to fight back, people with friends to back them up, and those who will generally make it hard for them. This suggests that deterrence from the bullied (in the form of fighting back) is likely to have large effects on stopping the problem.

The reason this is important is that it gets to the moral question of the culpability of the bully. Under the first premise, the bully is ultimately to be pitied, as well as (although probably not as much as) the bullied. Under the second premise, the bully is human scum, preying on the weak, and deserving of punishment and reprobation.

Personally, I'm closer to the Sebastian Marshall school, but that's not really important. Certainly in the case of children, it seems highly likely that poor home circumstances contribute to bullying problems, but that makes me only slightly more sympathetic to bullies. And it certainly doesn't make me misty-eyed about the power of deterrence.

But putting aside culpability, it seems that both policies can be implemented simultaneously. That is:

a) Adults and those in positions of power should try to show love and affection, thereby trying to win over those bullies capable of redemption, and

b) Kids being bullied should fight back hard and immediately, indicating that they are not soft targets. Fighting back on your own behalf creates deterrence. Fighting back on behalf of your friends and the weak creates extended deterrence, and both reduce the incidence of bullying.

I am certainly not one who thinks that wisdom is always (or even generally) found in balancing out all competing sides to an argument.

But the world is a complicated place nonetheless.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Maybe Single Dad Laughing got bullied because he kept on putting his "arm around every kid [he could]." Rock spider.

  3. You are an outrageous man, Lopez. You manage to thread a seamless transition from 'blame the victim' to 'needlessly insult the victim'.

  4. "it seems that both policies can be implemented simultaneously" What, so you give them a hug and then shiv them while their guard is down?

  5. More like the adults hug them, but the kids fight back.

    Having one person hug them THEN shiv them is what's known in the trade as the Lopez procedure.