Why do Bullies Gang Up on Targets?
Besides it being “safer” for several reasons we’ll explore in this post and the next one, when we want to understand behaviors, we pay attention to what they achieve.
That’s why we define bullying as “social sorting by despotic means”. The despotic means are used against a targeted person. In group bullying this arises as a natural part of people trying to sort a social group.
In that frame, there are three reasons for a group to gang-up on an individual:
- The individual is a member of an identified out-group (enemy).
- The individual is not yet established as a member of the in-group (newcomer).
- The individual is a member of the in-group, but breaking some social norm of the group (law-breaker).
In adult society, these things are formalized, with the military to gang-up on enemies; the border patrol to gang-up on newcomers; and the police to gang-up on law-breakers. Each of those groups (military, border patrol, police) enjoy elevated social status and advantages.
Child society isn’t formalized in this way, but keeping these ideas in mind will help understanding of group bullying behaviors.
What Shape Has Only Two Sides?
As the old riddle goes, the answer is a circle, which has an inside and an outside. Just as a circle has to have two sides to define it, every in-group REQUIRES an out-group to define the boundaries – and the benefits of being a member.
Why is a group important at all?
In the primitive world where our brains were formed, being in the group is better than being out. Acceptance was a matter of survival based on mutual protection from predators, warmth, shelter, and shared food. And, in some cases membership to the group was the difference between protection – and being fair game to actually be eaten by the group. This history is behind our instinctive terror of being excluded from a group – and the intense shame we may feel if rejected.
Two important points about groups:
- The group boundary is defined by who cannot be a member.
- Membership defines who is worthy to fair treatment.
A third point is that status within a group is a zero-sum game. Status is like a pie – every member getting a slice of some size, and no left-overs. And, for one person to get more pie, someone else will surrender some of theirs.
Many people think the most intense competition is over who gets the biggest slice of pie – the top-dog slot. In reality competition to avoid being last – eating only stale crumbs – can be the most brutal. And, that is one of the missing pieces of the bully puzzle.
Awareness of social position and deliberate investment in improving social position is seen across the animal kingdom. And, our cousin primates often encourage their offspring to “play with the rich kids” (socialize with higher-ranking offspring).
The Four Social Roles
For social animals, all behavior has a social meaning or use. For social animals, including primates, elephants, meerkats, etc – a member of the community acting as a “look-out” gives a warning cry to alert everyone else of a predator or outsider. Often, look-out duty is reserved for high-ranking members.
The “look-out” defines the boundary and identifies the stranger. Then, some members mobilize in group defense. Other members defer to the authority of the look-out and the defenders’ actions. And, a stranger who defies group territory has to deal with the consequences.
In this primitive and foundational group behavior, we find four roles defined by the actions group members take:
- Defining boundaries and rules (Leaders & Look-outs)
- Defending boundaries and rules (Soldiers & Police)
- Deferring to boundaries and rules (Members)
- Defying of boundaries and rules (Criminals or Enemies)
The Incentive to Be Mean
Each of these roles offers an opportunity for social profit by starting or participating in aggressive behavior.
Defining a boundary by noticing or creating a reason to call someone an outsider is like finding a status-token the whole group can share. If the group follows, the instigator earns status points. And, everyone who doesn’t share the outsider-marking feature gains the benefit (often the relief) of belonging.
Defending boundaries and rules by following the leader and harassing the “outsider” gains social capital both with the leader, and in the overall group.
Deferring to the boundaries and rules set by the leader, and defended by the soldiers, mere members either watch idly or are drafted to participate in some way. Whether soldier or mere member, once someone leads the charge and the action seems politically and physically safe, members will jump in and collect easy social status points.
Sometimes, even non-members can leverage points by demonstrating group loyalty through these actions. For example, Macaque monkeys can gain membership acceptance to a group by attacking a predator on behalf of that group. And, so it is with humans.
Defying the social order by refusing to be drafted, by “ratting”, or by standing-up in protest is also a defiance of leader authority and group rules (formal or informal).
Defining a boundary:
Children will ignore significant things – including race in many cases. But, they will find the most trivial excuses to define group boundaries – things never noticed until they became socially significant – or could be made socially significant.
When one child notices something “amiss” in another child, they give an “alarm call”: The leader or look-out defines the boundaries; the soldiers take defensive action; the members follow in deference; the outsider is harassed.
This is a primitive foundation underpinning much of what we call bullying behavior.
We can witness a rather pathetic “adult” version of this social profiteering in what some call “<like> farming” on social media. Attacking or piling-on against a “safe” target on social media will collect <likes> and yes-comments from click-surfers. Here’s one example:
In a period of twelve hours on Facebook, this poster got 379 <likes> and 213 <shares>.
That’s social capital in the form of approval, group membership, and KLOUT score. It’s also literal profit through free advertising of <shares> and the traffic that drives to the outside web site selling T-shirts, printed posters, and the like.
Defending boundaries or rules:
We see this symbolically “courageous” activity in the comments from “adults” about the above poster. They included a variety of agreements, praise, “volunteerism”, and sadistically creative enhancements (one-upsmanship) including:
“why not birdshot? let it sting and let it burn before they die, so they will feel pain”
“What about dull pocket knives, for castrating the sorry POS”
“A thousand cuts with a razor and turpentine”
You can find similar “social profiteering posters” about any unpopular group or public figure – with similar agreements, “volunteerism” and one-up enhancements.
Here’s one that’s a tiny bit more subtle:
Regardless of your personal politics, the structure is what we’re studying, here. The poster advocates DIFFERENT RULES for different groups of people based on an arbitrary label. Remember that only a behavior can be wrong or illegal – a person cannot be illegal or wrong. Remember from this post and from this post that making a person themselves inherently wrong or bad is the structure of SHAME – and that shame is one of the primary contributors to bullying.
It is most important for real adults who want to make a real difference to understand the times, places, and ways in which they may be modeling this kind of “soft bullying” behavior. Because, when adults can’t resist the temptation of such low-hanging social fruit – and aren’t even aware of what they’re doing – what do we expect of children with developing and curious brains?
Deferring to group action:
When people “go along to get along” – either actively or passively – they gain by maintaining their own social status of “membership”. And, they avoid falling into the social status of Defier of the social order or group boundaries.
Defying group rules or boundaries:
Just as adult dissidents and whistle-blowers are subject to police brutality, persecution, or exile – children who defy the social order are subject to the same kinds of reprisal – from social demotion, to physical harm, to exile from the group.
A person who “stands up against bullying” has only three possible paths:
- Redefine the leadership of the group (prosecute a coup)
- Redefine the group culture (cultural revolution)
- Redefine their own membership (exit the group)
Just like the adult world, the rate of success for the first two paths is not high. Stories like that of Martin Luther King outnumber those of people like Lech Walesa. And, paths that consume decades of time aren’t relevant to a child in grade-school. More often, we wind up with stories like that of PFC Joe Darby, who blew the whistle on the Abu Ghraib torture practices – and was promptly exiled when outed by his own embarrassed Secretary of Defense.
What Can You Do?
- Notice the primitive and simple structure, and the four social roles involved in group bullying.
- Notice that children in those roles are spontaneously recreating rules and roles that we formalize in adult life.
- Notice the limitations they have in terms of genuinely possible behavior – and the real dangers and consequences they may face by becoming a Denier.
- More importantly, notice the ways that adults model social profiting by participating in informal four-role structures like the political poster above.
- Ask yourself in a very frank way how you may be modeling this sort of social step-stool in your words or actions.
- Ask yourself how you may learn to notice this behavior more in the world around you – and how you can point out the structure to your children in age-appropriate ways.
- Through this process, help your children identify the structure, and the four roles, and the pathetic nature of trying to socially profit by attacking weak targets.
- Most important of all, suggest, model, and facilitate adventurous and genuinely contributory pathways to self-esteem and durable social standing.
Next time: “It’s Good to Be Mean” – how children escape good nature and good nurture to participate in cruel group bullying.
In the meantime, please leave your comments about the articles, and your questions about bullying – or about shifting behavior or culture in general. I’ll be happy to answer.