In these cases, school bullies went too far. But this kind of things happens every day among kids and teenagers. Some opinions hold that the matter is children’s stuff, and the problem only truly arises if it spreads to young adults. However, lying behind these headlines we find a teen kicked and elbowed who ended up down on the floor –while several others enjoyed filming in round- and also a girl with a broken tooth and an injured lip who fainted after perceiving her own bleeding. Where is the thin line that separates harmless children’s stuff from irreversible hurting? Including, of course, emotional damage: not just limited to immediate humiliation but also comprising the condition of remaining internally ‘vulnerable’, ‘undervalued’ and with a whole repertoire of anticipatory fears.
Knowing how social conditioning imprints in our brain wiring (yes, we literally talk about changes in the way neurons connect), it is somehow a crime to emotionally abuse somebody or to subject them to any kind of moral harassment. Because, in fact, it promotes a lasting feeling of scorn within that person. It leads to a self-image of inferiority or helplessness (even stronger in young human beings, since they have a more ‘plastic’ brain). That imprint generates in the long run a self-model of identity that later in life discourages self-esteem and strengths. As Swiss François Ansermet and Pierre Magistretti would say, we are talking about a self-restricting <<synaptic footprint>> here.
But on the other hand, there is another modern knowledge counterbalancing the previous argument. Contribution comes from evolutionary psychology: the branch that attempts to unweave emotional and cognitive processes based on our evolution from previous species. It consists in a comparative mechanism that we all carry within and that has us permanently appraising our features against others’. As a matter of fact, comparison is emphasized, hyperactivated, particularly during early stages of our life. Moreover, our mind works as a marketing & statistics specialist: it doesn’t compare us against any person, but it instead segments in ‘clusters’. It pays specific attention to those peers with similar skills and features to ours, in the near environment where we perform.
The functional purpose of this comparison is evident: we can understand which position we take within society and which our collection of features is. Those features that make us unique in some aspects while bring the feeling of belonging in others.
But comparison brings about distortions too. When testing their own skills against their friends’, some kids go beyond the simple “who’s-faster-than-who-in-the-playground” or “who’s-got-the-largest-number-of-stamps”. They end up confirming they are the strongest, and thus enjoy promoting themselves once and again against the weakest. They take advantage of the gap that separates them from those who, for being ‘fat’ -for instance-, are already less ‘socially entitled’ to defend themselves. (Fatness is a priori a shameful feature within children social environment… and adults’ too). The former become, thus, bullies. Nevertheless, the issue is not limited to boys. A girl may feel hurt when admitting there is another girl considered prettier than her, or when noticing she is not as thin as she ‘should’ regarding social standards. Once they are aware of their inconvenient position within the social group, their inner feelings give birth to a game of spontaneous hierarchization and search for re-hierarchization as well.
The controversy may get even worse if we misinterpret concepts tackled by the American psychologist Judith Rich Harris. This comparison and this game of hierarchies –which happen all throughout our life- lead to what she calls the <<Status subsystem>>. It represents a refined version, more ‘human-like’, of <<rank>> in animals. Alfa-males in the herd, dominant female chimps, etc. From the evolutionary perspective, the Status subsystem bears its useful side: it organizes societies and stimulates us to identify the features we don’t feel so good at, so that we can improve them.
The origin of some bullies’ abuse may be rooted in their attempt to prove themselves the dominant and popular ones in the group. And the origin of hostile behaviors against ‘the prettiest’ may be traced back to the pain of admitting an inferior condition in beauty. So, should bullying be allowed? Watch it! We must not fall into the naturalistic fallacy of assuming that a behavior is right just because it is backed by psychological subsystems that come from evolution. One thing is to explain behavior and another very different one is to excuse it.
Does all of this mean children are naturally born bad? No! Not at all. Once clarified the intrinsic motivations why these kinds of problems develop, we must move on to the following step. It involves contemplating, again, the damage inflicted on others if bullying is unleashed. Especially when bullying resorts to a preexisting pain within the targeted individual (‘being fat’ is already a source of grief which prevents blending in).
We are all equipped with the same psychological resources (bio-psychological). Among these resources we can find our prefrontal lobes. We must ‘tame’ these lobes starting from our early age. They can perform complex assessments of our behaviors, anticipate social interactions and even inhibit emotional impulses. This means that the road towards solution is already halfway walked, because we carry it within! Inside this very same brain already prepared to hierarchize us or condition itself in the face of adversity.
If we get relatives and professionals -teachers, tutors, etc, in charge of kids and teenagers- to assume responsibility in leading their behavior by making it reflexive, we will reduce both the pain of the victims (because there will be less victims!) and the pain of those who feel ‘not that pretty’ or ‘not strong enough’. Being aware of the distorted dynamics of relationships is just the first step to move on. We should not rest over controversy.
- Ansermet, François and Magistretti, Pierre (2004), A cada cual su cerebro. Plasticidad neuronal e inconsciente; Katz, Buenos Aires, 2008.
- Harris, Judith Rich (2006), No Two Alike: human nature and human individuality; W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 2007.