“Righteousness, intelligence, integrity, humanity and victory are the prerogatives of Us, while wickedness, stupidity, hypocrisy, and ultimate defeat belong to them.”

– Walter Kaufmann

In order to fully understand the core causes of bullying, you first need to understand a basic tenet of human psychology: The Us versus Other mentality, and what happens to our thought processing when we place people into the mental category of the “other.” It’s an established principle of psychology that lies at the heart of bullying. In fact, this mentality is so deeply ingrained in the American psyche that many people probably read the quote above thinking it was a motivational message or directive to act, as opposed to a critical observation of the barbaric way we humans treat one another. Throughout our lives we’re constantly finding reasons for placing others at a psychological distance, and when we do this, it opens the floodgates for hostile behavior towards them.

Psychological representations of the other: The role of caretaking and early attachment

Kids begin to form a psychological representation of the “other” very early in life based on the types of interactions that occur with their caretakers. These internalized scripts form as a result of quality in caretaking; measures that psychologists broadly refer to as “attachment.” When a child receives an abundant supply of love, care, comfort and physical affection from their caretakers, they form a secure attachment disposition, which translates into a more positive and prosocial view of others in general. When children receive emotionally distant, neglectful, erratic or overly judgmental care from their caretakers, they form insecure, disorganized or negative attachments that go on to influence every aspect of how that child relates to others throughout their life.

On a very basic level, studies in psychology have found links between the quality of a child’s early attachments and the tendency towards future bigotry, paranoia, and prejudice. The stronger a child’s connection to others early on in life, the less likely they are to display hostility in adulthood. Thus, children who receive the most love and physical affection/nurturing from the most caretakers early in life will be the least likely to bully others later on, whereas those kids whose quality of care isn’t as good are more prone to aggression and bullying behavior.

Social conditioning towards the ‘other’

Yet there’s a second, more problematic issue when it comes to bullying, and this is that all human beings (even those who formed healthy attachments early on) have the capacity to compartmentalize certain people as “others” and set them in a category apart from ourselves, thus creating psychological distance between them and us. When someone is not like us, they are an “other,” and when they are an “other,” they are not one of us, they are something apart and alien from us, and therefore aren’t extended the same empathy or compassion that we normally extend to our peers.

Throughout society you can see endless examples of how this Us versus Other mentality is promoted. Here are some of the most common methods:

1. Dehumanizing: This involves insinuating that someone is less than human or lacks the same humanity/morals/values as we do. By self-proclaiming the moral high ground and labeling others as less moral, we relegate them as an “other.”

2. Labeling: Monster…predator…terrorist…illegal…Americans do love their labels. But every time you use such negative labeling, you abandon a more accurate and nuanced view of a person in favor of a negative label. They become this label – they now embody your most judgmental views about what a “monster” or “predator” is. They’ve also become a thing rather than a person. They’re not human anymore, but a dispassionate and negative label, therefore no act of malice against them could ever be bad.

3. Devilifying or demonizing: This involves insinuating that a person’s motives are evil or maliciously motivated. They’re not like us – people who make mistakes because they’re imperfect people – they’re uncaring “others” who do wrong because they wish to be evil.

4. Stigmatizing: Social stigmatization occurs in countless ways, and can be one of the most powerfully negative ways of establishing someone as an “other.”

5. Negative comparisons: Comparing a person’s attributes to something negative or in a way that insinuates negative qualities.

6. Devaluing: Implying that some individuals are of lesser worth than other individuals.

7. Inequitable treatment: Not allowing one type of person the same treatment or freedom as others, such as denying gays the right to marry, restricting blacks from swimming in public pools, or treating former sex offenders like lepers and banishing them from the community. Whenever one type of person or group is treated as less privileged, it identifies them as a lesser other.

Whenever someone in society uses tactics such as this that serve to dehumanize and stigmatize other types of people, it drastically lowers the threshold for hostility towards them. More importantly, it furthers the divisions between people in our community as a whole, and makes devilifying others seem like a routine, normal, and perfectly noble thing to do. As children watch adults do this (no matter how justified our reasons may seem, and I guarantee you, they’re far less justified than they appear in every case) they become conditioned with this Us versus Others mentality. As a result, they’re far more likely to create their own divisions of Us and Others, to devilify and label those Others, to stigmatize and devalue those Others, which inevitably leads to a lack of empathy that encourages bullying behavior.

“Once the others are set at a psychological distance, they can become a target for hostility.”
– Psychologist Daniel Goleman (2006, p. 299)

When we regard someone as an Other rather than one of Us

Once we begin to categorize someone as an Other – someone who is seen as lacking the same positive attributes we possess, someone whose mannerisms or traits are alien and apart from our own – we begin to dehumanize them as a person. As social psychologist Daniel Goleman observes, “the mind builds its ‘evidence’ against the other with each additional disquiet, each unflattering media depiction, each feeling of having been treated wrongly. As these incidents build, apprehension becomes antipathy, and antipathy morphs into antagonism.” (Goleman, 2006, p. 300) Because of a phenomenon known as confirmational bias, we pay more attention to negative information about this person/group which confirms our negative stereotypes while ignoring or tuning out information and experiences that might reveal more positive attributes.

We also begin to project onto them ideas, attitudes, and motives that are of our own creation, but which we nonetheless attribute to them. We assign them hostile intent, sinister thoughts, evil motives, and all sorts of other drummed up charges that exist only within our own imagination. Now that these Others are locked into a make-believe battle of good versus evil inside our head, there’s no way they can win. They become a proxy – someone who embodies our wildest fears about what malice or despicableness might be. The devastation that emerges from this mindset knows no limits.

“The relationship between one of Us and one of Them by definition lacks empathy, let alone attunement,” says Goleman. “Should one of Them presume to speak to one of Us, the voice would not be heard as fully or openly as would that of one of Us – if at all. …The gulf that divides Us from Them builds with the silencing of empathy. And across that gulf we are free to project onto Them whatever we like.” (Goleman, 2006, p. 299) When you separate someone into a category apart from ourselves, it destroys empathy. And once empathy is destroyed, there’s nothing to keep us from doing the most monstrous things to them. This is why some of the cruelty that emerges from bullying can be so extreme as to leave outsiders in utter disbelief. How can seemingly “good” kids engage in such horrible things?

It’s quite simple. Once someone is mentalized as an “other,” becomes the target of our projected ideas of evil and filth, and empathy is removed from the equation, no degree of cruelty is beyond the scope of such a mindset. In fact, genocides the world around start in this exact same way. Most people prefer to think of such atrocities as a matter of evil. In fact, the source of such barbaric atrocities has very down to earth roots in basic human psychology. Genocides don’t happen because tens of millions of people within a given population suddenly become evil, they happen because the population becomes infected with negative messages that establishes the target group as Others. It’s never a matter of turning people “evil,” it’s a frightenly simple process of spreading messages that stigmatize other groups and promote the idea of certain types of people as being malicious, evil-spirited, and out to impede upon our own life in some way. As psychiatrist Dr. James Hollis remarks, “It is easy” to drum up this cold-hearted dispassion that allows us to so willingly hurt others. “All one has to do is find a ‘reason,’ because a ‘reason,’ a putative ‘just cause,’ can justify anything.” (Hollis, 2007)

You may not directly tell your child to bully the gay kids at school, yet societal actions in many other regards implicitly encourage such hostility by continually defining such people as the Others. You may not specifically tell your children that Hispanic immigrants or Muslim Americans should be treated in a hostile manner. Yet they’ve been told this thousands of times by the world around them, courtesy of messages on television and in the culture at large that define these groups as potentially hostile “others.” You may not directly tell your kids that sexual bullying is a noble behavior, yet they’ve internalized this message quite well as a result of how society persecutes any type of deviation from “normal” sexuality while marginalizing any such people as evil Others.

Most importantly, when you make a habit of compartmentalizing different people or groups as “others” in different ways – relegating them to a lower status, as something evil, bad, menacing, dispassionate, or inhuman – you make it something natural and second nature for children to do on their own. They’ve absorbed such tendencies from watching you and the culture at large, and so hostility becomes easy. Bullying freely flows against those relegated to the category of “other,” and it becomes far easier to place others in this category when you’ve grown up in a society where such labeling and psychological distancing is commonplace.

Any type of behavior or message which depicts or encourages this Us versus Other mentality will prime children for bullying behavior. Like sand in an hourglass, each example they are exposed to brings them that much closer to a bully mentality. Whenever we provide examples that encourage children to see the world in terms of Us and Them, it will prime them for bullying. Whenever we promote ideas of good versus evil that encourage them to see certain others as inherently bad, it will encourage them to bully others. We can only hope that adults start to think about this before they engage in such social posturing themselves.