A survey by the American Osteopathic Association showed that 31% of individuals in the U.S. reported experiencing bullying as an adult and 43% reported that bullying seems to have become more accepted in recent years. (AOA) Other prior studies have found similar rates. These rates have reached public-health concern levels.
What does adult bullying look like?
Bullying is a type of aggressive behavior. Adult bullying includes spreading malicious, false rumors about the target; turning social alliances against the target by painting a negative picture of them; putting down or silencing the target in front of others; excluding; mocking the target; withholding information from the target; and/or claiming credit for the work of the target. (NHS) The target is often not in a position of being able to defend themselves easily as there may be an actual or a perceived power imbalance of some sort (such as being newer in a social circle).
What drives bullying?
People bully others who they feel threatened by or envious of, especially those who are different from them in some way (Almeida et al, 2022) and to establish dominance in a group. (Salmivalli, 2010) Those who bully feel better by putting the target down. There may be a strong need for asserting dominance over others which can defend against underlying deep-rooted shame and a sense of inadequacy. Those who bully often have themselves been abused or bullied in the past. Mood, anxiety, substance use, and personality disorders may be more common among perpetrators of bullying as compared to others. A study also found associations between PTSD and bully perpetration. (McMillan et al, 2016)
Excessive competitiveness and excessive focus on advancing the interests of one’s self even at the cost of others, are some themes underlying bullying. De-humanization can be a factor as well. A study examining de-humanization and bullying among children found that ”non-friends were dehumanized more than friends.” (van Noorden, 2014)
Contrary to prior theories, research suggests that people who bully tend to have high social cognition, not low (Andrews et al, 2023), but they do display low empathy.
The covert nature of adult bullying
Bullying is a silent epidemic (McAvoy and Murtagh, 2003; Killoren R, 2014). Those who bully often ensure good relationships with their superiors (Killoren R, 2014) and with others they deem important, thereby enabling them to evade detection of their bullying. Targets of bullying often suffer in silence, because of a lack of effective anti-bullying policies and interventions, stigma, and at times, power imbalances. (McAvoy and Murtagh, 2003) Some suggest that those who bully know how to ‘work the system’ (Killoren R, 2014); they might plant the seeds of doubt in the minds of their superiors about the target, making it less likely for the target to be believed or taken seriously. (Killoren R, 2014)
The role of the peer group
Bullying is rarely solo. The term ‘bullying’ has its origins in the word ‘mobbing’ which was used to describe a group of children ganging up on one child. (Salmivalli, 2010) Recent research indicates that the peer group may inadvertently play a role in maintaining bullying. While peers may not theoretically be in favor of bullying, they may implicitly or unknowingly contribute to perpetuating bullying by aligning with the bully (WBI, 2021) or by staying silent because they might find it too risky to confront the bully, or by rationalizing that the bully is ‘just joking’ even though they may find the behavior psychologically harmful. The peer group may assign the bully the status of ‘cool’ or ‘popular’. (Salmivalli, 2010)
The impact of bullying
In addition to potentially harming the relationships and social standing of the target, bullying has detrimental physical and psychological effects on affected individuals via increasing risk of cardiovascular disease, adversely affecting the HPA axis, and increasing their risk of anxiety, depression (Niedhammer, et al 2006; Kivimaki et al 2003; Hauge et al 2010), sleep difficulties, and low self-worth. It can also adversely affect the psychological well-being and morale of those who witness the bullying, increasing the risk of depression among those bystanders. (Emdad 2013). Studies from children and adolescents show that even those who bully may suffer from negative psychological sequelae.
How to prevent bullying
Given that 34% of surveyed individuals in the U.S. are estimated to deny being aware of the existence of bullying and many people blame the target of bullying, the first step is to raise awareness about bullying. (WBI, 2021) Given that bullying can be one of the factors contributing to anxiety and depression, there is scope for further research in anti-bullying interventions, especially those involving a peer group. If a peer group stops assigning ‘popular’ status to a bully, it may prevent further bullying. (Salmivalli, 2010) On a preventive level, compassion and mindfulness programs beginning in school might help create the groundwork for children, adolescents, and later adults to develop greater self-awareness, self-regulation, compassion, empathy, altruism, and equanimity, which may in turn, help prevent bullying. (Botha et al, 2015) Programs that educate about bullying can also help.
Greater compassion for one another, rather than othering, can be a source of bullying prevention and healing. Compassion is noticing others’ suffering with a desire to relieve suffering. The ability for compassion is present in human beings and can be further cultivated and nurtured through compassion training. Compassion reminds us that others are ‘just like us’, in their desire for happiness and freedom from suffering. Compassion entails kindness and gentleness toward self and others. For a more peaceful world with better collective well-being and healing, compassion is a vital practice.
Copyright Richa Bhatia 2023
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