What is Bullying?

John Bailey
4 min readJan 12, 2021

This is the first of a detailed series on bullying — which offers a wealth of opportunities to apply the Motivational Literacy® system for understanding our emotions, and building effective strategies to work with them.

On this issue, my personal background comes into play — from having been a bullied kid, to having a two-decade career analyzing and managing patterns of human aggression and violence. I have an extensive experience working hands-on with violent people, and training others ranging from SWAT and military personnel to children who had bullying problems. And, my work with that spectrum of people has been 100% successful in producing the desired outcomes.

I don’t pander to political correctness. I only do what provably works. So, let me begin by saying that posters and platitudes service the emotions and needs of the adults. We can service the adults’ emotional needs, or we can service the real needs of the children. When those needs are in opposition guess whose side I’m on?

What is Bullying?

Because, people seem challenged to clearly define it. The word was first used in the 1530s, at which time it meant “sweetheart”. My, how times change…

Most “authorities” seem to agree that bullying has two characteristics:

  1. Repeatedly, and intentionally inflicting unpleasantness of some kind upon someone.
  2. Power is involved.

What “authorities” disagree on is whether power allows bullying — or is bullying a means to power. I’m going to come down firmly on the side of … both.

Social status is a zero-sum game, with real consequences:

For social mammals of all kinds, social status has a powerful influence on survival — including infant and maternal mortality, basic longevity, and quality of life — including health and reproductive opportunity.

This is as true for humans in the modern world as it is for Baboons in the wild: A study by White & Edgar for the U.K. Office for National Statistics in 2003 showed “a predominately linear relationship where healthy life expectancy rises with social class.”

So, it is not surprising that human beings have an instinctive drive (experienced as an emotional need) to improve and maintain their social status. This does not mean everyone tries to be King; It only means that everyone wants to be “better than someone else” — or NOT LAST. (People who can remember being chosen last — or nearly-last — for a team on the playground can recall the intensity of this emotional force.)

Humans are driven to protect or improve their social status — particularly if they perceive themselves low or threatened in the social order. And, they will experiment with all sorts of strategies toward that end.

What we call “bullying” is mostly developing primates experimenting and discovering ways to deal with their perceived needs around social status.

While we’re talking about perception, I want to do away with the myth that an audience is necessary or even useful to the actor. If dominating another child is sufficient evidence for the actor to be convinced his status is safe, he doesn’t need an audience. In fact, witnesses increase the risk of adult interference or social blow-back. So, an audience may actually inhibit some bullying behaviors.

The intensity of feelings about our status varies with many things that affect our perceptions: Uncertain home life, poor nutrition, lack of sleep, poor health, or small physical stature can exacerbate the need to protect or improve social standing. Also, the degrees of social stratification and social despotism we perceive can drastically affect how acutely-felt the need to protect and to improve status. The more stratified, and mono-competitive the environment, the more we invite creative (or desperate) strategies for managing social status.

The pie of social status is divided amongst a group. To accommodate a new member — or the mobility of existing members — someone is giving up some of their status-pie: Someone is going to suffer a social demotion, and that has real consequences, even in the “civilized” world.

Adults like to pretend this isn’t true — so we can all “play nice”. But, as the saying goes, “you can’t fool Mother Nature” — in this case the primitive brains of developing primates — because children live in reality. And, they understand in a real way that adults are neither omniscient nor omnipotent. They prove this daily by getting away with things themselves — and by being subject to the covert mischief of others. Although, this fact sends most adults into fits of denial, it’s just reality. Ask a kid…

Based on the usefulness of bullying behaviors at a biological level — and on the real-world operation of those behaviors,

we define bullying as:

  1. Repeatedly, and intentionally inflicting unpleasantness of some kind upon someone.
  2. The behaviors are (mostly) a strategy trying to address a perceived need to protect or advance perceived social status.
  3. A quality of secrecy insulates the actor from adult interference, from negative social back-lash, or from both.

This doesn’t suggest anyone else is “wrong” with their definition. This is just to be clear about how I’m going to define bullying for the purpose of discussing it in this series.

Next up: The Culture of Bullying — and What You Can Do