Group Bullying (part one)

John Bailey
8 min readJun 29, 2021


Why do Bullies Gang Up on Targets?

We define bullying as “social sorting by despotic means”. In group bullying targeting a specific person is 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:

  1. The individual is a member of an identified out-group (enemy).
  2. The individual is not yet established as a member of the in-group (newcomer).
  3. 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 understand 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 evolved, acceptance was a matter of survival. It got us 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.

Three important things about groups:

  1. The group boundary is defined by who is excluded.
  2. Membership defines who is worthy to fair treatment.
  3. Status within a group is a zero-sum game.

Status is like a pie: Every member gets a slice of some size, and no left-overs. 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 the most vicious competition is to avoid being last — eating only stale crumbs. Many people are surprised by that piece of the bully puzzle.

Awareness of social position, and deliberate effort to improve social position, is found across the animal kingdom. Our primate cousins often encourage their offspring to “play with the rich kids” (socialize with higher-ranking offspring). The trick of course, is getting them to be accepted.

The Four Social Roles

For social animals, all behavior has a social meaning or use. For primates, elephants, meerkats, etc — a member of the community often acts as a “look-out”. They give a warning cry to alert everyone else of a predator or outsider. The “look-out” defines the boundary and identifies the stranger. Often, look-out duty is reserved for high-ranking members.

When an alert is given, 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:

  1. Defining boundaries and rules (Leaders & Look-outs)
  2. Defending boundaries and rules (Soldiers & Police)
  3. Deferring to boundaries and rules (Rank Members)
  4. Defying of boundaries and rules (Criminals or Enemies)

The Incentive to Be Mean

Each of these roles offers an opportunity for social profit by instigating 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. If the group follows, the instigator earns status points. And, everyone who isn’t an outsider gains the benefit (often the relief) of belonging.

Defending boundaries and rules by following the leader and attacking the “outsider” wins social capital — both with the leader, and in the overall group. Because we “honor our troops”.

Deferring to the boundaries and rules set by the leader, and defended by the troops, mere members either watch idly or get drafted to participate in some way — maybe by applauding. Once someone sounds the alarm and leads the charge — and once the action seems politically and physically safe, group members jump in to collect easy social status points.

Sometimes, even non-members can leverage points or even gain membership by joining-in. For example, Macaque monkeys can gain membership acceptance to a troup by attacking a predator on behalf of that group. And, so it is with humans, too. Defying the social order by refusing to be drafted, or by protesting leader behavior is a “crime” against group membership. It risks banishment or worse.

Defining boundaries & rules:

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 the executive order of a leader.

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 target 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 some “<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 via <shares> that drive traffic to an outside web site selling T-shirts, printed posters, and the like.

Defending boundaries & rules:

We see this symbolically “courageous” activity in the comments about the above poster. They included a variety of agreements, praise, “volunteerism”, and sadistically creative enhancements (one-upsmanship in posturing to gain social status). Those remarks included:

“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 status grubbing.

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 which side of an imaginary line they’re on.

Structurally, behavior can be wrong or illegal. Making a person inherently illegal is some form of dehumanizing prejudice. It is the structure of SHAME — one of the primary contributors to bullying by children, and one of the foundations of various atrocities by adults.

If you want to see more examples of this sort of pathetic social-scavenging committed by adults, browse Internet image-searches for various political subjects, including candidates, or the most recent victims of bias-based crimes.

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 social-status-scavenging bully behavior. When adults can’t resist the cowardly temptation of such low-hanging social fruit what can we expect of the children watching them?

Deferring to group action:

When people “go along to get along” they gain by not risking their group membership. 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 exile from the group, even physical harm.

A person who “stands up against bullying” has only three possible paths:

  1. Redefine group leadership (conduct a social coup)
  2. Redefine the group culture (foment cultural revolution)
  3. Redefine their own membership (exit the group)

Just like the adult world, the rate of success for the first two paths is not high, and also fraught with risk. Stories like that of Martin Luther King outnumber those of people like Lech Walesa. And, paths that consume decades of time aren’t helpful to a child in middle-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?

  • Understand the primitive and simple structure, and the four social roles involved in group bullying. Understand EVERYONE in any group occupies one of those roles.
  • Notice that children in those roles are spontaneously recreating unspoken rules and roles that are formalized for adults. Help them develop awareness, and the ability to discuss these roles.
  • Notice the limitations they have in terms of genuine possibilities for shifting their roles. Acknowledge, discuss, and help strategize around the real dangers and consequences of challenging the group in the three paths above.
  • Notice the ways 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.
  • Explore ways to challenge and shift your own roles, and model aware and responsible behavior.
  • 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.