Many common perceptions about bullies are incorrect. That bullies suffer from low self-esteem, they are depressed or they have low social status. In this post, I will break these myths. I will give my opinions on why people, particularly men bully, and how to deal with bullies. Due to my background, I have extensive experience dealing with bullies. While I am discussing this subject, it might crack your perception of reality, this will cause you discomfort. When our belief systems are challenged it is normal to feel discomfort. First, let’s break the bullies have low self-esteem myth.

Bullies have higher self-esteem, social status and lower levels of depression

Our brains are rationalization machine, as I showed in Lying to the person in the mirror we attempt to fit facts to our belief systems. The mainstream theory is a bully pushes others down to raise themselves up because they suffer from low self-esteem, low social status or depression. They are mentally tormented. Indirectly this theory makes us better than the bully which boosts our ego. The theory is 50% correct in that bullies are pushing others down to raise themselves up but the reason is wrong. It is amazing that for several decades this theory stood, and no one actually tested it.

A study called Survival of the Fittest and the Sexiest: Evolutionary Origins of Adolescent Bullying studied 135 students aged 13 to 16 at a Metro Vancouver School. They reached these conclusions.

The central idea of evolutionary psychology theory (EPT) is that species evolve to carry or exhibit certain traits/behaviors because these characteristics increase their ability to survive and reproduce. Proponents of EPT propose that bullying emerges from evolutionary development, providing an adaptive edge for gaining better sexual opportunities and physical protection, and promoting mental health.

The uncomfortable truth is there is an evolutionary advantage to bullying.

Four dependent variables were examined: depression, self-esteem, social status, and social anxiety. Results indicate that bullies had the most positive scores on mental health measures and held the highest social rank in the school environment, with significant differences limited to comparisons between bullies and bully/victims. These results lend support to the hypothesis that youth bullying is derived from evolutionary development.

The proponents of the conventional theory on bullying might argue bullies are unhappy, they have inner demons, they are not well-rounded individuals etc. Rationalization or as Nassim Taleb calls it, is an example of the The Bed of Procrustes a Greek Myth about a sadistic innkeeper who would cut off the legs off his victims or stretch them to fit his beds. Having a warped sense of humor, I find it amusing when I catch myself deluding myself. Why do people, particularly males bully ?

Why do people bully ?

bully - use superior strength or influence to intimidate (someone), typically to force him or her to do what one wants.

The definition of bully indicates it is a way to get people to do what you want. The words influence and intimidate indicate there is a psychological and emotional aspect of bullying. Indirectly this hints there are socially acceptable methods of bullying and methods which are taboo. The Sicilian Mafia, threatening to burn down your restaurant unless you purchase their insurance policy is socially unacceptable. On the other hand, Insurance company sales representatives asking is your business insured? How will you rebuild if there is a fire? Then pointing out stoves are a fire hazard is socially acceptable. The Sicilian Mafia might argue this is cultural bias, they are doing the same thing, just in a more direct method.

I stated that men will bully more than women. As the study on bullies showed there is an evolutionary aspect to it. As Louann Brizendine in her book The Female Brain the parts of the brain responsible for aggression are much larger in male brains. Aggression is also linked to testosterone which males generally speaking produce more of. Women also are aggressive but generally speaking in more indirect ways. There is a spectrum of production of testosterone in both males and females. Digit ratio the ratio of the ring and index fingers indicates the amount of testosterone that a fetus was exposed to in the womb. This exposure affects brain development, generally speaking, women with digit ratios closer to their male counterparts are more aggressive.

People bully to get others to do what they want, there are biological and social evolutionary factors involved.

Bully is a result of failing social tests

The hardest part of your military career isn’t basic training but being assigned to your first unit. You will be the new guy, you will be hassled by the other members of your platoon and squad. In my opinion, this happens at a subconscious level neither the older members of the platoon or squad consciously know it is happening. The Sergeants and other NCOs turned a blind eye to what was happening unless there is a risk someone might get physically hurt. The military doesn’t like its soldier getting hurt, it is expensive to replace them. Why does this happen ?

The role of males in packs of animals is to protect the females and children. The infantry is a primitive group traditionally consists of males, it is a good place to study primitive male group behavior. I asked friends of mine, who were former military members, what is was like in prison? They said it wasn’t that bad, I asked them how could that be? The replied it wasn’t much different from the military, there was a similar social dynamic.

Within the group, even among Privates, there is a hierarchy. You want to know how your comrades in your squad and platoon will react under pressure. You will then start to heckle them. If a new soldier is being transferred in from another unit, you want to know his reputation. Even in peacetime, you are putting your life in their hands.

These tests or direct or indirect insult, the behavior is subconscious. I live in a developing nation, or as I like to put it, one that hides reality less. A local thug starts talking to you. Recognizing me as a foreigner, he then states, you are all alone, where is your companion? I then ask him, why do I need a companion? He replies this is an extremely dangerous country. I then might reply back, really? You think I need an escort to protect the locals from me? Everyone laughs, it is funny, locals needing protection from a foreigner. We usually then have a beer and chat.

If the local thug senses fear, he will start to test you more, then if you fail too many tests, it might result in actual bullying.

What to do when you are a victim of bullying ?

Fear and intimidation are the bully’s main tools. As I have shown, his motivation is social status and testing to see how you react under pressure. You then have to turn the situation into a win/win situation or a MAD (mutually assured destruction) one.

Growing up, I attended an inner city high school, I was small and had to rely on my wits. There was a large kid who sat behind me, he constantly smacked me in the back of the head when the teacher wasn’t in the room. He then smacked me in the back of the head, I had enough and waited for an opportunity to strike back. When the teacher left the room, he would lean back in his desk, so the desk would be on two legs. When the teacher left the room, I grabbed the front of the desk, pushed it till it was vertical, instinctively he grabbed onto the side of the desk. I then told him the next time he smacked me in the back of the head, I would flip the desk over on top of him. Everyone in class thought it was funny a small guy threatening a big guy and laughed. With a look of shock and fear on his face, he nodded his head. I returned the desk to its proper position, sat back down, when the teacher returned to the room, he was unaware what happened.

The next day, he threatened me, I calmly told him, you better stop doing that or I will get you. After a couple of days, the bully and I became good friends. This is an example of mutually assured destruction, if I flipped the desk over, he would get hurt, I would have ended up a suspension. It is the reverse of a win/win situation. Handling the situation in the manner I described can result in a negative feedback loop. The bully strikes back worse, you counter, each incident gets worse. The bully is more experienced at being a bully and not getting caught while you are less experienced at bullying, probably you will get caught. The bully will claim to be the victim, later he will laugh at you. It is better to work for a win/win situation. How do we do that?

Knowing that fear and intimidation are his tools and the issue is social status, how do you handle this situation? The objective is to show fear and intimidation will not be effective and it is better to cooperate versus fight. You should offer him a way out, a way to rationalize why he should cooperate. When talking to the bully, subtly adjust your posture, to what I am told is called the Jesus Pose. You want to demonstrate that you are no longer afraid of the bully, but at the same time signal that you do not intent to attack him. You should be facing him squarely, your hands should be kept open, with the palms facing him. You should be looking slightly upward but when talking to him, look him in the eye. You should attempt to regulate your breathing, breath regularly and not too rapidly, act calm do not make any quick movements. Placing one foot in front of the other, and facing him at an angle, signals that you intend to hit him. Remember these are subconscious signals. So facing him in a Jesus pose goes against your natural instincts.

Personally, I like to use humor to defuse the situation, a joke is applicable to the current situation. Nowadays, I am told that bar fighting in western countries results in prison time. When I was younger and went to bars, it was a sport. Usually, bullies would try and start a fight by accidentally running into you. Depending on the situation, I might right away apologize using the stance I describe. Then I would say something like its only 10pm, and I am already drunk, I can’t handle my booze. Then I could offer him my hand, he instinctively will shake it. Then when moving towards common ground, where are all the good looking chicks tonight? Or who is that, good looking chick, do you know her? After that you can start a conversation with the guy.

The key is for the guy to see you are no longer a threat to him but on the other hand not a push over. He probably will then start looking for easier targets. Possibly, your tactics might not work, in that case, look for an exit strategy. Tell him, oh my friend is calling me, sorry I have to go. I have to buy a drink etc. The key is dealing with your inner fear.

Learning how to deal with fear

The military through social evolution has developed methods to teach its soldiers to perform tasks instinctively despite facing fear. Some of the teaching methods can cause mental damage in certain individuals but are there principles which we can apply to regular people? Military movies and fiction created by veterans is a way for them to attempt to make sense of chaos. The movie Jarhead is this generations version of Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now. Throughout the movie, Jarhead has references to the two movies Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now. When I first saw Jarhead, I was laughing at the marines, who were watching the movie Apocalypse Now and themselves laughing at the movie. Why are they laughing? They have lost the fear of something that used to terrorize them.

The military machine is designed to take humans and turn them into soldiers who can perform complicated tasks while being exposed to dangerous situations. The movie Full Metal Jacket gives an overview of the process. It starts when the recruit is expected to stand at attention while he is bombarded with verbal abuse. The Sergeants are expert cold readers when it comes to sensing fear. He is given a white recruit from Texas, the Sergeant will assume he has racist tendencies and is homophobic. He then yells a barrage of abuse at the recruit, observes how the recruit reacts. If the Sergeant’s suspicions are correct, he then fine tunes them, makes references that the recruit’s girlfriend is having sex with a black man. The recruit is expected to remain standing perfectly still at attention, the most basic task one can do is stand still. As the training progresses, the recruit will be forced to perform more complicated tasks under more dangerous situations. For example crawling under wire entanglements while having a machine gun firing over his head.

For a successfully trained recruit, verbal abuse no longer affects him. It becomes comical. That is why the marines in Jarhead are laughing at the soldiers in Apocalypse Now.

Get the essence - what can we learn from this ?

Some individuals will break under the military machine, Full Metal Jacket gives an exaggerated example where Private Pyle kills the drill Sergeant then himself. The military machine has calculated what are acceptable losses. The book’s title The Killer Angels about the battle of Gettysburg contains a paradox. The Generals leading the battle were angels but at the same time killers. This is the quandary which General Lee is facing, fighting for a way of life which involves slavery while being anti-slavery, being forced to choose between America versus his Virginia, loving his soldier yet knowing he was leading them to die. This is the quandary which every leader faces. The movie, unfortunately, failed to show this paradox or quandary the Generals face. Is there a middle ground where we can take the good and throw away the bad ?

The first step is self-honesty, this is the topic of my post Lying to the person in the mirror. Being honest with yourself doesn’t mean viewing yourself as a saint or devil. It means accepting the way you are and then working towards change. The second is confronting your fears and dealing with them, this is the topic of my post Confront fear - Gain freedom. List down your fears, start confronting them. The most important step is taking action.

It is better to do something as opposed to nothing

Take action. Once you have identified your fears, take action. Expect to screw up, learn from your screw-ups, this is why The journey is more important than the destination. You don’t need to crawl under a machine gun firing live rounds to start confronting your fears.

The bully works using intimidation and fear. Start confronting your fears then work towards creating a win/win situation with the bully. Once the fear is gone, the bully’s tactics stop working.

When you point a finger at someone, three points back

Everyone is guilty of bullying, in some cases, it might be justified. There was a motorcycle accident next to a large crowd of people. Honestly, I was hoping someone else would take charge when no one stepped forward I was forced to take action. I then bullied bystanders into helping. One woman was complaining that she might get blood on herself, I told her to shut up, help out, I don’t want to hear about it, she can go home later and take a shower. I bullied her. Later the relatives of the victim came to thank me, honestly, I was a little embarrassed. I told them I didn’t really do anything, everyone else did the work. The point of this story, I am a bully sometimes, we all are.

Instead of attempting to eliminate bullies, we should be learning better coping strategies for dealing with bullies. Police officers and soldiers, for example, are put into positions of authority in our society. Left unchecked, they can become bullies. We can not eliminate bullies but we can learn to deal with them so their tools fear and intimidation no longer control our lives.

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