By Anju Miura
Nero, Caligula, Hitler and Stalin — many historical figures have been known for years as villains of the world, dehumanizing others for sport.
Although not to the same extent, modern day bullies exist everywhere from preschool to the workplace. They treat some with cruelty while being nice to others.
But what’s the difference between the bullies and the “good guys”?
Some of them may have psychological issues such as antisocial personality disorder, but there are many situational factors that influence people to act brutally day to day.
Background on aggression
The frustration-aggression hypothesis explains that aggression results from the blocking of a desired goal.
Aggression is a primitive human instinct. We all have cruelty in our nature and keep seeking ways to explode in anger.
As we deal with countless stresses, such as family drama and complicated relationships with friends, we gradually become more and more frustrated.
We want to vent our frustration, so we find a scapegoat, someone who doesn’t necessarily collaborate with a group, but is blamed for mistakes or faults anyway.
By attacking the scapegoat, we attempt to relieve our own personal conflict.
Behavior can change attitudes and vice versa
Bullying is a technique of persuading people. Bullies may try to manipulate our behavior by influencing our attitudes.
In 1971, psychology professor Philip Zimbardo conducted the Stanford Prison Experiment in which research participants were randomly assigned to prisoner or prison officer roles and spent six days accordingly.
Although neither group received any specific instructions regarding behavior or attitude in the experiment, all participants started to define their identity by reflecting their group’s social status.
Given an authority to control the prison, a group of officers tyrannized and dehumanized prisoners, harassing them verbally and physically. On the other hand, a group of prisoners became obedient, believing they were real prisoners and accepting the officers’ brutal behavior, largely without exercising their own rights to drop out of the experiment.
Illustrated by the experiment, manipulated behavior can eventually shape attitude and belief. Situational factors can easily override an individual’s personality traits.
The power of a majority
The reason why bullying is more common in a group is because it is human nature to seek solidarity.
Psychologist Solomon Asch’s experiment on conformity revealed that people tend to follow the answer of the majority even when they know it’s wrong.
The whole classroom may engage in bullying of some degree after a few students start to pick on one child, chosen as the scapegoat.
Rationalizing and following a negative attitude often seems easier than mastering a positive one. It takes tremendous courage to speak out when all other members of a group have the opposite viewpoint.
We sometimes need to swim against the tide to follow our own beliefs and accept our own values — it’s better for ourselves and those around us.