Group Bullying (part two)

John Bailey
8 min readJul 6, 2021

Humans have intuitive, unconscious, evolved awareness that being mean can be socially profitable. If we want to stop group bullying we have to face this reality and deal with it as-is.

Empathy standing in the way of cruelty-based social profitability. It gives us a troublesome sense that cruelty is just … wrong. Our innate sense of morality gets in the way. If we’re going to profit from meanness, we need a way to escape our empathy and morality. How can we set ourselves free to profit from cruel actions — whether we initiate, participate in them, or just watch from the sidelines?

Would you feel bad if you stepped on a child’s foot and made them cry?

How would you feel if you stepped on your pet dog’s foot and made it yelp?

Do you feel pain and guilt for stepping on a cockroach?

What’s the difference?

Remember how membership to the in-group defines who is protected by fair treatment? For some primitive cannibalistic tribes “not us” gave a whole new meaning to them “having you for dinner”. The difference is in the label.

Labeling someone as part of an out-group — or as less-than-human — makes it “fair” to subject them to any other kind of mistreatment — including violence. (It is common in propaganda to refer to political enemies as “cockroaches” or “vermin”.)

I wrote previously about dehumanization through name-calling.

Let’s look through the lens of animal behavior, and imagine the instigator of group bullying is like the “look-out”. His initial name-calling is like a warning cry to the group. Other group members spread the warning by repeating the name-calling that identifies the target as an enemy.

Group defenders take action, soon competing with each other for who is doing the most. They become bolder and more aggressive as long as it’s socially profitable. In humans, this dehumanization can be very dangerous when it shuts down empathy and disconnects morality: Sticks and stones can break your bones, but name-calling actually can get you killed. (This is how lynchings happen.)

Discriminatory Comparisons are helpful to the aggressors by disconnecting empathy and morality: “People who aren’t members are worthless”, or “our group is better than some other group” (racism is an example of this). Discriminatory Comparisons act on the brain much like name-calling.

Delicate Language is another way to feel less empathy and to disconnect morally from the things we are doing. We use this emotion-relieving strategy in other contexts quite often:

A dentist doesn’t pull your teeth out; he “performs a procedure”.

We don’t kill our dog for being old and sick; we “put them to sleep”.

George Carlin did a whole comedy routine around this “soft language”. Bullies do the same thing with euphemisms for abuse. Many people are familiar with the term “wedgie”, but perhaps not as familiar with the “front-side” version of this abuse designed to injure the genitals. The technique is known as the “melvin” or the “minerva” for boys, or girls, respectively.

There’s also “pantsing”, the “tittie-twister”, the “noogie” (knuckles across the scalp), and the venerable “swirlie” — which sounds so much sunnier than holding a victim upside down with their head in a toilet while flushing.

The linguistic trick can be useful, for instance allowing people like nurses and surgeons to do their jobs without harmful emotional distress. But, bullies use it to free themselves of empathy and morals to empower their social profiteering through cruelty. Wherever we detect or use euphemistic language, someone is disconnecting from empathy and morality.

Denial of responsibility is also useful for silencing the nagging voice of conscience. There are several ways to do this:

Denial of harm is one of the easiest: “It didn’t hurt that much. He’s fine.”

Denial of malicious intention is another: “It was an accident. I didn’t know she would need stitches.”

Denial of personal responsibility is one of the great advantages of group bullying.

  • We can blame it on the “leader” we were just following.
  • We can blame it on others in the group.
  • We can diffuse and dilute blame across the group as a whole.
  • We can deny participating in “the bad part” by admitting to involvement in only “the harmless part”.
  • We can say the target caused their own misfortune. “If he hadn’t fought back he wouldn’t have fallen down.”

Denouncing the target as Deserving mistreatment is one of the most powerful and important ways to release ourselves from empathy and morality so we can profit by harming them. This one goes with Dehumanization through labeling: “Vermin deserve to be destroyed.”

These are the five categories of psychological tricks to disengage empathy and morality.

  1. Dehumanization
  2. Discriminatory Comparisons
  3. Delicate Language
  4. Denial of Responsibility
  5. Denouncing the target as deserving of bad treatment

If you are honest with yourself, you will notice the ways you use these emotional manipulations yourself — for instance to make it easier to kill the cat.

When these five mind tricks come into play in context of social profit through group bullying, the foundations of good nature and good nurture will crumble. Add to this the forces of peer pressure and conformity bias, and we can see how frighteningly easy it is for our little darlings to do wicked things.


What Can I Do?

Recognize it’s normal, and part of human social interaction and development. Because nobody is immune, the most important thing is to admit that you do it.

The second thing is to notice where you’ve done it, and improve the behavior you’re modeling. Develop a cautious and aware ear that notices the methods of moral disengagement outlined above. Practice shifting your language in specific ways outlined below.

In age appropriate ways, teach your children the power of language, and how these manipulations are done. Train them to focus on values and principles, and to use the methods below to defend themselves against manipulation.

Practice, Model, Teach, and Expect intentional application of the Six Empathy & Morality Activators to stop group bullying:

Humanization: Labeling and name-calling reduce perception of humanity; Using a person’s given name increases empathy and connection. Because humans are hard-wired for empathy, connection is increased when we make eye contact and look at their face.

Practice and model using names rather than labels. Consistently look at the faces of others and make eye contact when you meet or interact. Teach, and expect children to use names and make eye contact. This activates empathy in them, and also in the people they interact with, making this simple habit protective against being bullied as well as against bullying.

Inclusive Comparisons: This is the opposite of discrimination — which is based on seeking and magnifying human differences. Just as the brain can sort for differences, it can also sort for similarities. Practice and model an intentional search for similarities with others. Use age and context appropriate teaching and expectations for young people to exercise the same skill.

Straight Talk: Tommy did not “get a wedgie”. Tommy did not receive anything. His clothing was damaged. He was touched in an unwelcome manner. He was humiliated, and caused physical pain. Notice whenever you might use euphemistic language, and challenge yourself about who it serves. Model using straight talk, and require straight talk from both adults and children.

Embracing Responsibility: A fundamental principle of Motivational Literacy is that power accompanies responsibility. The only way to escape responsibility is to abandon power — to focus attention on what one doesn’t control. That mental creates a world-view of powerlessness. And, a world-view of powerlessness aggravates social insecurity , which feeds a cycle of bullying — and yet more evasion of responsibility.

“Control the controllable”: Focus on what one does control — and seize responsibility for that part of the system. Stay focused on what you control, and the real outcomes your actions create. When we practice, model, teach, and expect this, we create what was once called “self-reliance” and “work ethic” — emotional habits that produce success within our moral values. Use straight talk to acknowledge what you control. Model taking responsibility for all outcomes, and require children to do so as well.

This builds a habit of planning good choices, protecting children from participating in group bullying. It also empowers potential target children to seize responsibility for every scrap of control they can find — which encourages tenacity and perseverance — rather than surrendering to an identity of helplessness.

Defining “Deserve: Most moral and religious systems tell us to refrain from judging others because of things we cannot know. The Founding Fathers of America built into the Constitution a concept of presumption of innocence, fairness, and due process. Practice, model, teach, and expect — as part of your values system — that nobody is beneath fairness and due process. This is another doubly-protective training: Children with a strong foundation of fairness are less likely to take part in unfair play; and are more likely to assert themselves against it — to protect themselves or others.

Resist conformity bias & be careful what group you join: Recognize social groups that always have to have someone to abuse. Ask whether you want to be a member of such a despotic club. Realize that groups structured around abusing someone will easily turn cannibalistic: Your turn may come sooner and more easily than you think. Seek other environments, even when it means changing jobs or social organizations. We cannot expect youngsters to learn to “stand up” if we do not show them how that’s done. Every challenge you face as an adult models for your child the behaviors and values they will live-out.

Remember the FOUR specific verbs:

  1. Practice — making the effort to notice and continually upgrade your own performance.
  2. Model — make sure you demonstrate the behavior to others in clear ways.
  3. Teach — reveal explicitly the structures behind the behaviors.
  4. Expect — anticipate that youngsters will exercise awareness, empathy, and morals — and to help them notice and upgrade their performance as necessary.