Decrease bullying by increasing empathy

A boy comforts his friendIs bullying like a disease? For which the only antidote is a little taste of social exclusion?

Writing for the website LiveScience, Jeanna Bryner summarizes the findings of a recent study at Northwestern University: “Unless they’ve experienced it firsthand, people underestimate the social pain endured by victims of bullying.”

In the study, researchers had students play a simple computer game that involved tossing and catching a ball with other players (who were actually computer simulations). Some students experienced exclusion as the other players left them out of the game. Others were included in the play.

The researchers then asked the students questions. Two of the questions dealt with how students would feel after discovering their close friends didn’t invite them to their party or after asking someone out and getting turned down. The students who’d just been excluded in the computer game “indicated a significantly higher pain experience” than those who didn’t, highlighting the fragility of our social self-esteem.

In another experiment, students had to gauge how a victim of bullying felt after being teased about her weight. The excluded students rated her pain higher than the included students. This result suggests that their recent experience of social pain increased the students’ empathy for another’s experience of it.

The researchers then put middle-school teachers through the same tests, asking also about the proper punishment for the person who bullied the overweight student. In keeping with the previous results, the teachers who’d recently experienced exclusion rated the student’s pain higher and suggested more severe punishment for the bully.

Lead researcher Loran Nordgren concludes, “All told, our perception of social pain matters as much as our understanding of physical pain. Not only do estimates of social pain govern how we empathize with socially traumatic events, but they guide our approach to how well we advocate on a victim’s behalf.” Nordgren thinks current programs and laws that address bullying might not adequately address the problem. He suggests increasing empathy in teachers and administrators through training that simulates social exclusion.

Making you feel bad about yourself isn’t even remotely a goal of our Character Development Seminars, but we do offer exercises that help increase your empathy and teach you how to better understand bullying, what to do about it, and how to prevent it from happening in the first place. Our new 3-day training works by providing you with successful strategies to instill character values in your students and create physically and emotionally safe environments. Even if you’ve attended one of our seminars before, this dynamic, redesigned program reflects a full integration of new teaching/learning practices you need now.

Learn more, or see the schedule.

5 thoughts on “Decrease bullying by increasing empathy”

  1. This study fails to mention that you have to have kids/students that actually care about others.
    So many of my students are very self-centered and need to have emphathy development.

  2. This article, and many others that you write are shared by me daily on Facebook and with my clients. Childhood bullying is running rampant through our schools and our children’s computers and many parents don’t take time to find out about their child’s social experiences until it is too late for their own child. Thanks you for writing about his topic. Keep it coming. Also, I am a therapist and I teach about this topic all the time. I’d love to add a link to your site with my site.

  3. I feel that it is important for parents to have such a workshop and training because often, kids learn what their parents teach, or do not teach, them. Parents need to be accountable for their kids’ emotional and social development.

  4. I believe this article clearly illustrates one dynamic that makes it so difficult for teachers, administrators and staff to help students resist the effects of the behaviors of bullies and bystanders: we, ourselves, have perhaps been in those shoes, and until we recognize and know how to handle those feelings, it is very difficult for us to teach it. Taking a good look at ourselves is great place to start, because, to coin a phrase, character does indeed count.

  5. This article hits on a very fundamental note. Every child needs to understand what its like to be bullied (those that have experienced it already don’t need the experience it again..!) and to be challenged on this behaviour. In my own experience, physical punishment (i.e. one hard punch) of someone bullying me was the only way to make them understand that they must desist. Many others that I know have said the very same thing. This was a crude but very effective measure. If its possible to do this another more civilised way, so much the better. I will teach my children not to take any crap from anyone.

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