While studying for my graduate degree, I took a class taught by a professor who had developed a theory that all human interaction is based on the need to be socially accepted by our peers, that everything we do in the world is predicated upon this need, which ranks up there right after food, shelter, and safety. It is an interesting theory, and my main complaint with the class was that each of the professor’s students had to fully accept the truth of that premise in order to get a good grade. That class ruined my perfect GPA.

I recently ran across an article on OEDb (Online Education Database) describing ten psychological studies on the nature of bullying. And right there, at number three, was a report on social desires and bullying. Apparently, a Dutch study found that bullies are most often driven by “the desire to attain status and win the affections of their peers, desires nearly all students share.” My former professor would disagree with the “nearly” and say that every student shares that desire. Perhaps his theory was closer to the truth than I knew back then.

What differentiates bullies from their peers, according to the study, is the way bullies use dominance to attain status. This behavior, naturally, is risky and usually denies them their desire to win the affection of their peers. It also makes them focus on the classmates who appear weak or unpopular.

According to the article, there is more to the story, however. “Social desires,” the researchers report, “also drive how victims respond to bullying.”

A 2011 study conducted at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found:

  •  Students who are motivated to form strong relationships with their peers were more likely to use proactive strategies to reduce harassment from a classmate.
  •  Those who wanted to be perceived as ‘cool’ were more likely to lash out at bullies.
  •  Students who wanted to avoid negative judgments of their peers were most likely to do nothing at all.

Researchers say that “these insights into bullying should help shape future interventions in schools, promoting conflict resolution and showing students the way to build healthy relationships with their peers.”

The key seems to be the desire to form strong relationships. Is that desire innate or must it be nurtured? Perhaps if the children themselves are nurtured and have strong, loving bonds with their families, it might create a foundation for this need to carry over once the child begins school.

I’m not suggesting that a child who is loved and nurtured has zero chance of becoming a bully once it leaves the nest, although that would be wonderful. But another psychological study mentioned in the article found that bullying behaviors are learned and practiced at home, so that might be a good place to start.

If bullying can be taught—probably through example—hopefully, its opposite, the benefit of having warm relationships with peers, can be encouraged. Of course, it’s not realistic to believe that everyone will like everyone else all the time, or even want to have a relationship with them. But it can’t be too much to ask that, even if you don’t give a hoot about another person, you show respect for and kindness toward him or her. And that, surely, can be taught.

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