Sorry for the lull in blog posts. Something terrible and unexpected came up in the first week of August and I haven't really been able to relax until the past couple weeks. I'd rather not get into the details in a public forum but... enough with the apologies, on with the post.
Last week I took an overnight trip back to New York City where I attended an event promoting Richard Dawkins's new memoir, An Appetite for Wonder. Dawkins devotes a small portion of his book-- a few paragraphs at most-- to discussing the school bullying he witnessed as a boy. Fortunately, Dawkins himself was spared, but he indicates in his memoir that he is somewhat guilt-stricken for not stepping in when other children were bullied and that he has a difficult time reconciling this aspect of the boy that he was with the man that he became. Since Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist, he briefly speculates the evolutionary explanation as to why kids bully and also compares the bullies'-- and apathetic bystanders'-- state of mind to that of Nazis who tortured and killed their victims in the Holocaust. I found myself becoming a bit fixated on this insignificant aspect of the book because I, too, have wondered deeply about the evolutionary psychology behind bullying since I was sixteen years old. The interesting thing was that back then I had never even heard the term "evolutionary psychology."
As are many kids with Asperger's Syndrome, I was bullied severely, in my case from 2nd grade (age eight) to the end of 9th grade (age fifteen). I entered 10th grade at a high school for which very few kids in my middle school (grades 7-9 in my district) were zoned. For the most part, since I had a "fresh start," I was not picked on. However, I was still lonely because I could not connect with anybody. As I often did when lonely, I retreated into myself and found myself philosophizing about the world around me and having intense internal monologues. As I watched a number of the silly and sometimes absurd social rituals performed by other kids in order to "fit in"-- such as wearing what's "in style," listening to the "cool" music, etc.-- I began to wonder if everything we do-- directly or indirectly-- is based on the instinct to reproduce and that bullying is a byproduct from that instinct. Perhaps, I thought, the "different" kid is seen as a threat to group survival. This idea came to full fruition in early 1998 at age seventeen. At the time I was naive enough to believe I had come up with a brilliant new idea. Somebody should have said, "This isn't exactly a new concept," and put the books of Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, and Judith Rich Harris in my hands. Nevertheless, since then I have formed a great deal of ideas about the evolutionary psychology behind bullying.
Be forewarned: I'm not going to pretend to be an expert on evolution. The ideas I want to present are based on my observations, experiences, and what I have read, and if anybody more knowledgeable in this area wants to correct me, I invite you to do so. I recognize that I could be wrong about many of these ideas that I want to put forth.
First, let's look at the bullying I experienced. In elementary school, it was mostly childish name calling. I was told, "You're weird," and called names like "space cadet" and "alien" because, like many kids with Asperger's, I was often off in my own little world. Gym class was a nightmare. I was often ridiculed and humiliated for being bad at sports. For example, if the gym teacher made me goalie in a soccer game, my team groaned while the opposing team cheered. Harassment also delved into threats of physical harm. Once, at age ten, I was riding my bike when some boys ambushed me and chased me up the street. One shouted, "Let's kill her!" Part of me believed that these boys really wanted to kill me.
My situation got quantitatively worse in middle school. The name calling became more bitingly personal, and threatening phone calls and physical violence became an almost daily part of my life. Other kids sometimes told me that I was worthless, was a freak, and some even told me to go kill myself. In 8th grade, a girl ambushed me and pinned me to the wall, her hands on my throat while other kids watched and laughed from the opposite wall. I struggled but could not push the girl off. I actually found that I could not even call for help as I was not getting enough air. Fortunately, another girl intervened and stopped the assailant. Later that day, the entire 8th grade knew about the incident and was having a good laugh over it. Life was at its worst in 9th grade. Every single day in ceramics class a group of girls threw giant balls of clay at me. When I told the teacher about what was happening, she imparted the fantastically ignorant advice to "just ignore it."
So where does this tie in to evolutionary psychology? I have provided extreme examples of bullying in both verbal and physical forms in which there were invocations of death. Even when the bully is not taking it to that extreme, I think what it comes down to is that he or she wants the victim dead. Why? In our more primitive days, there were a finite amount of resources and the best chance for the group to survive was to cooperate. Part of cooperation involves conformity in order to minimize conflict. Additionally, people recognized each other as being part of their tribe based on similar appearances AND customs. The problem is, biological evolution did not "account for" technological evolution, which begat a world in which food was readily available and in which people from all over the world would encounter one another. I believe that we are still acting on the survival instincts to "filter out" the person deemed as a threat, the person who is "different." It is no wonder, then, that kids with Asperger's Syndrome experience some of the worst bullying.
Another possible reason for being threatened by the "different" person is that behavior that is perceived as "odd" might be indicative of disease. Primatologist Jane Goodall once observed a polio-affected, partially paralyzed chimpanzee dragging himself back to the troop after a sojourn into the forest. The troop first reacted in fear to their former "friend" and then in anger assaulted and, possibly, tried to kill him. Eventually, Goodall intervened. The ill chimpanzee was subsequently tolerated in the troop, but was mostly shunned.
Something else that I have observed, in my own experience and in working with kids, is that bullying is quantitatively worse in larger groups. When I attended a small private school in sixth grade, I found that people were much more accepting of me and my quirks. The same holds true at the overnight camp I went to which had a grand total of 150 kids. At a large summer camp (300 kids) that I worked at, however, I witnessed a great deal of bullying among the kids. And at my middle school with 1,000-1,100 kids? Forget it. For me that was the worst. If it is true that the size of the group is positively correlated with the amount of bullying (although the age of the kids is obviously a consideration), then why? Once again, let's look at our ancestors. They lived in tribal villages of roughly 150 people. Not only is a middle school of 1,000-1,100 students large, but perhaps it is perversely large. There will not be one, or two "tribes" (as in a private school or a summer camp) but several, simulating the tribal conflicts of our ancestors. The one not pulling his weight, so to speak, is a waste of resources for any tribe and must be destroyed!
There is also the issue of safety in numbers. One day I stormed out of my history class, in tears, because some of my former "friends" were picking one me, which they did nearly every day. A student teacher had been supervising the class while my history teacher stepped out. I encountered him in the hallway. He saw that I was in tears, shook his head, and said, "Every day with you it's the same thing. You can't handle your problems and you end up crying. Go to guidance." Because I was the only one getting picked on and because it was a group of my former "friends" and their friends picking on me, the implication was damning: several people against one. The "one" must be the problem. My ceramics teacher also advised me to go to the guidance office after a particularly horrible clay fight that ended with kids cheering as I left the room. Why weren't the bullies advised to go to guidance to get advice on how to handle their overwhelming compulsion to cause emotional and physical pain to the school "oddball"? Because there were enough of them, enough of them to normalize this absurd behavior. Even in the eyes of adults, I was the one who needed to be fixed, not they. I was the one not "contributing" to the tribe. Safety in numbers, too, would explain why bystanders don't step in and often are indifferent to the suffering of the victim: they don't want to be the odd one out and become victims themselves! Is it possible that natural selection favored those who lacked empathy towards "outsiders?"
Finally, I want to invoke the Asch Experiment, a study executed during the 1950s that tested individuals' motivation to conform to group consensus. Each subject was told that he was participating in an experiment about visual perception with seven other people. In actuality, he was placed in a room with seven actors, people who were aware what the experiment was really about. The participants were shown a reference card with a line on it, followed by a card with three lines of varying lengths. Participants were then asked to state which of the three lines matched in length the single line on the reference card. The group sat in a way that assured that the experimental "guinea pig" was the last to state which line he thought was the same length as the one on the reference card, that is, after everybody in the group had given his answer. In two trials, the actors were told to unanimously give the correct response, and in the third trial they were told to unanimously give the incorrect response. The first two trials were uneventful, with the participant feeling at ease as he gave the same correct answer as the actors. In the third trial the subject found himself in a dilemma and questioning whether the answer he was prepared to give was actually correct. Ultimately, the subject generally caved in to peer pressure and gave the same incorrect answer as the actors.
What is scary about the Asch experiment is this: The peer pressure in question was not overt. The actors weren't calling the subject names or even saying much of anything. But just the fact that they had a different answer was enough to pressure the subject to question his. In fact, years later the experiments were revisited in a slightly different format. Brain imaging studies indicated that the subjects did not change their answer out of fear of being the odd one out; rather, their actual perception changed. What do these experiments have to do with bullying? I fear that they have everything to do with it. As I look back on my own experiences, I recall in 7th grade that a good friend of mine stood up to the bullies for me. By 9th grade, however, she was also bullying me. One day she approached me and said, "Everybody wants to beat you up." I glared at her and, in an even tone, said, "Why?" And she said, "Because you're you." Peer pressure ultimately got the best of her. I don't think she independently decided she no longer liked me. I don't even think that she consciously decided to side with the bullies out of fear of becoming a victim. Rather, I think the groupthink involved literally altered her perception. I am not sure if the others said, "If you hang around Julie, we won't be your friends anymore." Even if they didn't, I suspect that her observation of their attitude towards me was pressure enough. Jodee Blanco's memoir Please Stop Laughing at Me relates several experiences of Blanco's former friends conforming to peer pressure and becoming bullies. Conformity helped our ancestors survive (at the expense of others' lives), but today we know better. We should, at any rate.
I want to end this blog post with a few more thoughts. School bullying is an issue I think about all the time: while running, while swimming laps, while lifting weights, while drawing, while writing, while watching TV, and while merging with reckless drivers onto I-95. For any parents reading this, telling your child to "just ignore it" is terrible advice. Also, keep in mind that some teachers might even say that to a kid who is physically bullied, as did my ceramics teacher. But think about it: if someone throws rocks at an adult while taking a walk, that is considered assault. But a kid experiencing something similar is supposed to IGNORE it? One problem is that many adults don't see bullying for what it is-- bullying. They don't know how painful words can be. They don't realize that pushing, throwing clay, or even attempted strangling are forms of physical assault. They often downplay the seriousness of the bullies' actions, calling it "teasing," "joking around," "kids being kids," a "rite of passage," and sometimes even comment that the victim is "bringing it on herself." Call it what you want. But to borrow a quote from one of my intellectual heroes, Dr. Jack Kevorkian (albeit from a very obviously different context), "But it doesn't bother me what you call it. I know what it is." Verbal and physical abuse are just that-- abuse. Both cause emotional pain, and research indicates that many of the same neural circuits for processing physical pain also process emotional pain. Science has done a great deal of good in helping us to understand how the human mind works, and I am glad that the brain imaging studies are there to concretely illustrate just how painful verbal abuse can be. Science is also helping us understand why bullying happens. Maybe next it will tell us how to eliminate it.