Cognitive Dissonance: How Bullies Rationalize Their Behavior Toward Their Victims

By now, you’ve heard (and were probably outraged) by the kids who mercilessly bullied Karen Klein, a 68-year-old New York bus monitor, this past June. The students tormented Karen mercilessly and after the video was posted to YouTube (shown above), the story gained international attention and left most folks shaking their heads in utter disbelief.

While the children are now seemingly remorseful about their 10-minute verbal assault on this poor elderly woman, people often wonder why bullies behave in the manner that they do in the first place. To get to the root of the problem however, we first need to understand what bullying is.

What Is Bullying?

Bullying is an antagonistic behavior that is demonstrated by using force, coercion or pressure that affects others, especially when it is done habitually. It involves any or all of the three basic kinds of abuse – physical, verbal and emotional. Almost anyone can be bullied – regardless of color, age, gender, sexuality, social status or ability.

Cognitive Dissonance: Understanding Why Bullying Takes Place

In 1956 social psychologist Leon Festinger coined the term “cognitive dissonance,” which is essentially a state of mental tension or conflict that forms as a result of inconsistency in an individual’s thoughts, beliefs and actions. It generally takes place when new information is learned that challenges the knowledge that a person already has.

[showmyads]As humans, we are motivated to keep our opinions, beliefs and behaviors harmonious so that internal conflict is minimized. It is a strange need to reassure the ego that whatever action is being done, is right and consistent with our personal feelings on the issue. A bully will instinctively prey on this need for internal harmony, and often selects a person in the group who has no strong emotional attachment to the intended victim to initiate the teasing process. To increase the chances that his influence is felt, the bully will likely suggest that this provoked attacker begins with “easy” taunts that might be considered as harmless.

As the bully begins to escalate the abuse, the provoked attacker finds it difficult to say no and this is where cognitive dissonance comes in. In order to rationalize his behavior, the provoked attacker will perform incredible mental gymnastics in order to restore internal harmony. For example, the provoked attacker might feel that he/she is a good person, and if a good person is viciously teasing someone else, then that person (the victim) must be a very bad person and thoroughly deserving of such treatment.

As we can see, it takes just one antagonist to get an entire group of people going. A bully will use manipulation tactics on seemingly “decent folks,” influencing them to think that the victim deserves exactly what he/she is getting. As the saying goes, “one bad apple…”

A second factor which facilitates, escalates and accelerates the development of the bullying group is the acquisition of power. Power affects the brain in much the same way as drugs do. Power floods the brain with chemicals, intoxicating those who are drawn to its alluring taste. Power is also highly addictive, and members of the bullying group usually want more of it.

Victims of bullying are well aware that the possibility exists that events will deteriorate to something even worse. Unfortunately, in the face of escalating and prolonged harassment, victims often feel that there is no way out other than to commit suicide. Such outcomes invariably lead to crushing feelings of guilt and regret by members of the bullying group and often spark fresh inquests into the psychological factors behind the social cancer that is bullying.

7 Factors Behind Bullying

1. Personal History – Children who regularly experience social rejection or who do not perform well in school are more likely to bully others.

2. Familial Issues – Families that demonstrate a lack of communication, a punitive atmosphere, lack of affection and inconsistent discipline tend to have children who are bullies, either in the home itself or in locations where the children interact with others.

3. Institutional Issues – Bullying is more likely to develop in environments with low standards and low regard for the treatment of others.

4. Social Issues – People get more attention for negative behaviors than they do for positive ones. Therefore, persons who seek attention are more likely to “act out” than to conform to society’s rules.

5. Cultural Issues – In a culture that tolerates winning and the acquisition of power through violent means, children are likely to grow up with the belief that violence is the easiest, quickest and best way to get what the things they desire.

6. Power – Some persons with power might feel compelled to wield it in a way that is noticeable to others. Additionally, these persons might not have been properly trained to handle such power.

7. Provocative Victims – These are persons whose negative behavior escapes the attention of authority figures and who are subsequently “paid back” for their provocative actions.

As we can see, bullying is more or less a consequence of circumstances. There are many factors which contribute to its occurrence and while it is usually instigated by one person, the mob mentality that often results is a product of the individual minds of each person in the bullying group. It is for these reasons that extensive focus on the psychology of the bullying group usually yields no rewards. But even so, researchers remain undeterred and many continue to investigate bullying in all its forms today. Despite the challenges faced, the world’s psychologists are putting in a valiant effort to minimize this damaging behavior within our society.

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