Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


empty-locker-room

(PHOTO: BROCREATIVE/SHUTTERSTOCK)

It Takes a Village to Create a Bully

• November 25, 2013 • 12:00 PM

(PHOTO: BROCREATIVE/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Why you—and your teachers, coaches, and other superiors—are probably to blame for some of the hazing and harassment that goes on in our nation’s classrooms, locker rooms, and workplaces.

Right now, the NFL is abuzz. Over Peyton Manning’s potentially record-setting year and the oh-so-disappointing Washington Redskins, yes, but the dominant story concerns a subject that doesn’t usually gain much traction in the most macho league in American professional sports: bullying.

It all started on October 28, when Miami Dolphins offensive tackle Jonathan Martin left the team under mysterious circumstances. They didn’t stay mysterious for long: It quickly came out that Martin had been driven to severe emotional distress—to the point of checking himself into a hospital—by pranks and verbal abuse coming mostly from his teammate and fellow offensive lineman Richie Incognito, a hulking man-child (if this seems like an overly colorful definition, watch this YouTube video, which features some salty language) who has a reputation as one of the dirtiest players in the league.

Not long after Martin’s departure, which continues to this day (he is likely done playing for the Dolphins), Incognito was suspended indefinitely, and in the ensuing fallout the media shined a bright spotlight on the Dolphins’ locker room. Reports have swirled that Incognito regularly targeted Martin with verbal harassment, some of it violent and racist; that Martin was pressured into contributing $15,000 for a team trip to Las Vegas he had no interest in joining; and that his departure was precipitated by a puerile prank in which other members of the team refused to sit with him in the cafeteria.

Key to this strategy is the realization that kids may not care what “people,” in a vague sense, think of a given sort of action, but they do care what their immediate peers think.

(It should be pointed out that Incognito shot back with the claim that Martin threatened his family in a text message and that this was all just playful banter between the two men that has been blown out of proportion, but Martin’s lawyer and half the Internet quickly pointed out that when Martin sent his threatening text he was parroting an Internet meme.)

All of this, of course, has been irresistible fodder for the bloggers and talking heads on ESPN and other sports outlets, and as a result battle lines have been drawn in the public debate: It’s those who claim there’s something wrong with the “culture” or “atmosphere” of the Dolphins’ locker room (and, perhaps, many others in the league) versus those who claim that Martin couldn’t take a joke and wasn’t tough enough for the NFL life.

It would be easy for the casual observer, particularly a non-sports fan, to tune all of this out: Who cares if overgrown jocks are pranking each other? But that would be a shame, because this ongoing scandal highlights many difficult, counterintuitive dynamics of bullying. If we could cut through the media cacophony, through all the muscleheads making impassioned defenses of “warrior culture,” a high-profile case like this could serve as a valuable lesson for school administrations and others. Most bullying victims, after all, aren’t Jonathan Martin—they can’t simply storm out of school, attracting media attention to their plight.

I sent an email to Hana Shepherd, a Rutgers University researcher who along with Princeton University’s Elizabeth Levy Paluck ran an anti-bullying intervention called the Roots Program in 56 New Jersey middle schools last years, to get her thoughts on the Martin case and what it can tell us about how to fight bullying. (Full disclosure: Shepherd co-taught a required psychology course I took during my public-policy grad school days at the Woodrow Wilson School.)

Shepherd and Paluck’s work (the results of which they’re starting to write up) focused on using students, particularly influential members of schools’ social networks, to change social norms and patterns of behavior in schools. One important problem she and Paluck face in their schools is not that most kids support bullying, but that most kids think most kids support bullying.

“This is the quintessential pluralistic ignorance effect—everyone, or many people, privately disagree with something (or supports something), but sees everyone else participating or complying, so assumes that everyone supports it,” she wrote. So it may well be that many in the Dolphins’ locker room didn’t enjoy Incognito’s antics (for what it’s worth, an unscientific ESPN survey of NFL players indeed suggests that more are sympathetic to Martin than Incognito), but thought that they were in line with a socially accepted culture of macho “comradery” (or hazing), and therefore felt that speaking out could threaten their social standing.

Pivoting off of this, Shepherd and Paluck are hoping to simply make bullying less socially acceptable in their schools. “A premise of our work is that changing students’ perceptions of norms—what everyone in the group believes is socially acceptable—can profoundly impact the amount of peer harassment and bullying,” Shepherd wrote, “and that this is a crucial pressure point that interventions should target.”

Key to this strategy is the realization that kids may not care what “people,” in a vague sense, think of a given sort of action, but they do care what their immediate peers think, particularly those who are the most visible and influential. Translating this to the NFL, Shepherd wrote that “players probably care much more when there is evidence that players on their own team (vs. NFL-wide) don’t support the kind of behavior Incognito engaged in—their own teammates are the ones they have to interact with every day, and respond to most immediately.” (In this sense, the endless and oftentimes macho commentary from former and current NFL players about “locker room culture” is actually rather important.)

That’s why the most common solution proposed to these problems—assemblies, presentations, and other anti-bullying educational programming—can backfire. Shepherd cited a litany of reasons why NFL teams might want to think twice about simply packing their players into a film room to teach them about bullying:

There are a number of real drawbacks to interventions like assemblies or trainings. First, they assume that giving people information once is sufficient to affect behavior in the long term and across many situations. There is lots of evidence that what really affects behavior are situation- or context-specific cues, so reminders or behavioral strategies for the exact situations where hazing or bullying is most likely to occur. Assemblies or trainings often don’t provide those types of strategies. Also, these types of initiatives are often one-off deals, which are rarely effective in affecting sustained behavior change. Often assemblies or trainings are led by outsiders who may not be seen as legitimate figures for addressing the problem by the target audience. At least in schools, assemblies often provide an opportunity for students to make fun of the event—kids roll their eyes, make jokes, don’t pay attention—which conveys to other students that the norm in the school is not to take the content of the assembly seriously. This isn’t the case with all assemblies, of course, but there is a real danger that they can backfire by giving the target audience the impression that no one takes challenges to the behavior that is trying to be changed seriously, thus further spreading the perception that the norm in the group is to support, or at least not challenge, hazing and harassment.

What does work, then? It largely comes down to positive and negative social feedback, to how we perceive our peers responding to our behavior. While cautioning that “not all behavior can be addressed through social pressure,” Shepherd wrote that “If Incognito was receiving absolutely no social support for what he was doing, where no one gave him a high five after a dirty hit, and no one laughed when he said threatening things in the locker room, then it seems highly unlikely that he would have kept doing those things.” The fact that he has been such a jerk for such a long time means that it’s quite likely “that the behaviors of other team members and maybe coaching or admin staff, however subtle, created the conditions for that kind of behavior to persist.”

That might be the most important takeaway here. As Shepherd put it, “it takes a village to create a bully.” Many of Incognito’s defenders are pointing to the fact that some of his teammates have come forward to speak out on his behalf. But that’s not proof he wasn’t a bully—it’s proof that the NFL, or at least some of its locker rooms, are places where no one stands up to bullying, where it’s allowed to fester and metastasize.

School administrators looking to their own locker rooms—and libraries and classrooms and cafeterias—would do well to heed this lesson.

Jesse Singal

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 21 • 4:00 PM

Why Are America’s Poorest Toddlers Being Over-Prescribed ADHD Drugs?

Against all medical guidelines, children who are two and three years old are getting diagnosed with ADHD and treated with Adderall and other stimulants. It may be shocking, but it’s perfectly legal.



November 21 • 2:00 PM

The Best Moms Let Mess Happen

That’s the message of a Bounty commercial that reminds this sociologist of Sharon Hays’ work on “the ideology of intensive motherhood.”


November 21 • 12:00 PM

Eating Disorders Are Not Just for Women

Men, like women, are affected by our cultural preoccupation with thinness. And refusing to recognize that only makes things worse.


November 21 • 10:00 AM

Queens of the South

Inside Asheville, North Carolina’s 7th annual Miss Gay Latina pageant.


November 21 • 9:12 AM

‘Shirtstorm’ and Sexism in Science

Following the recent T-shirt controversy, it’s clear that sexism in science persists. But the forces driving the gender gap are still being debated.


November 21 • 8:00 AM

What Makes a Film Successful in 2014?

Domestic box office earnings are no longer a reliable metric.



November 21 • 6:00 AM

What Makes a City Unhappy?

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, Dana McMahan splits time between two of the country’s unhappiest cities. She set out to explore the causes of the happiness deficits.


November 21 • 5:04 AM

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends’ perceptions suggest they know something’s off with their pals but like them just the same.


November 21 • 4:00 AM

In 2001 Study, Black Celebrities Judged Harshly in Rape Cases

When accused of rape, black celebrities were viewed more negatively than non-celebrities. The opposite was true of whites.


November 20 • 4:00 PM

Women, Kink, and Sex Addiction: It’s Not Like the Movies

The popular view is that if a woman is into BDSM she’s probably a sex addict, and vice versa. In fact, most kinky women are perfectly happy—and possibly healthier than their vanilla counterparts.


November 20 • 2:00 PM

A Majority of Middle-Class Black Children Will Be Poorer as Adults

The disturbing findings of a new study.


November 20 • 12:00 PM

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.


November 20 • 10:00 AM

For Juvenile Records, It’s ‘Justice by Geography’

A new study finds an inconsistent patchwork of policies across states for how juvenile records are sealed and expunged.


November 20 • 8:00 AM

Surviving the Secret Childhood Trauma of a Parent’s Drug Addiction

As a young girl, Alana Levinson struggled with the shame of her father’s substance abuse. But when she looked more deeply into the research on children of drug-addicted parents, she realized society’s “conspiracy of silence” was keeping her—and possibly millions of others—from adequately dealing with the experience.



November 20 • 6:00 AM

Extreme Weather, Caused by Climate Change, Is Here. Can Nike Prepare You?

Following the approach we often see from companies marketing products before big storms, Nike focuses on climate change science in the promotion of its latest line of base-layer apparel. Is it a sign that more Americans are taking climate change seriously? Don’t get your hopes up.


November 20 • 5:00 AM

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn’t vanish as we age—it just moves.


November 20 • 4:00 AM

The FBI’s Dangerous Misrepresentation of Encryption Law

The FBI no more deserves a direct line to your data than it deserves to intercept your mail at the post office. But it doesn’t want you to know that.


November 20 • 2:00 AM

Brain Drain Is Economic Development

It may be hard to see unless you shift your focus from places to people, but both destination and source can benefit from “brain drain.”


November 19 • 9:00 PM

Gays Rights Are Great, but Ixnay on the PDAs

New research suggests both heterosexuals and gay men are uncomfortable with public same-sex kissing.


November 19 • 4:00 PM

The Red Cross’ Own Employees Doubt the Charity’s Ethics

Survey results obtained by ProPublica also show a crisis of trust in the charity’s senior leadership.



November 19 • 2:00 PM

Egg Freezing Isn’t the Feminist Issue You Think It Is

New benefits being offered by Apple and Facebook probably aren’t about discouraging women from becoming mothers at a “natural” age.


Follow us


Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn't vanish as we age—it just moves.

Ethnic Diversity Deflates Market Bubbles

But it's not in the rainbow and sing-along way you'd hope for. We just don't trust outsiders' judgments.

Online Brain Exercises Are Probably Useless

Even under the guidance of a specialist trainer, computer-based brain exercises have only modest benefits, a new analysis shows.

The Big One

One company, Comcast, will control up to 40 percent of Internet service coverage in the U.S., and 19 of the top 20 cable markets, if a proposed merger with Time Warner Cable is approved by regulators. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.