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May 13, 2014 10:20 AM   Subscribe

Schoolyard bullies may worry that their victims are free to be sniveling, cowardly worms with almost zero repercussions. But, fortunately, they'll get their comeuppance when they grow up and die of heart disease or cancer. "Bullying Is Good For Your Health." (Being bullied is bad for it.)
posted by grobstein (89 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
Siiiiiiiigh.

Science Journalism 101: so there are these two things called correlation and causation...
posted by Peevish at 10:32 AM on May 13 [8 favorites]


Here's a link to the paper for all the four-eyed pipsqueaks
posted by theodolite at 10:32 AM on May 13 [24 favorites]


Science Journalism 102: If the lead researcher says "We found that the enhanced social status that came along with being a bully did seem to advantage them over time,” the researcher himself is identifying a possible causal link.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 10:36 AM on May 13 [31 favorites]


I've thought in the past that studies that talked about "inflammation" as if it were a medical thing were sort of woo-ish. Am I wrong in that? I would be okay being wrong.
posted by jessamyn at 10:37 AM on May 13 [2 favorites]


Can't speak to the science, but this wouldn't surprise me. Some of the bullies grow up and become workplace bullies, which is a nice esteem-boosting power trip. All the work bullies I've encountered seem to be doing great. And, to add insult to injury, as grown-ups their victims can't suddenly snap and hit them over the head with a rock (as a, um, friend of mine often fantasized about).
posted by sfkiddo at 10:39 AM on May 13 [4 favorites]


My life at age 11 was made dismal by a guy named Ted P_____. I am in touch with two or three of my old classmates peripherally and over dinner last year I learned that it was the same with every one of us. I was not totally dismayed to learn recently that he had cashed in several years ago.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 10:45 AM on May 13 [1 favorite]


Siiiiiiiigh.

Science Journalism 101: so there are these two things called correlation and causation...


I wish people would stop relying on the correlation-causation quip. Insofar as we ever establish causation, especially in the social sciences, we do it via correlation. Some patterns of correlation tend to discriminate causal stories.

In this case, it's not clear whether the following sort of common-cause story has been ruled out: high social status is a common cause of bullying behavior and of later low inflammation. But there may be reason to think the direct causal story is better: bullies do better not only than victims but than subjects who were neither bullies nor victims. On the common-cause story, this must be because bullies are exogenously higher status not only than their victims but than non-victim, non-bullies. This might be true, but it's not obviously true. It's an empirical commitment that ideally would need to be tested. On the other hand, it seems plausible that bullying increases social status, for example because it discourages people from messing with you.

The study doesn't prove the direct-cause story, but it is suggestive evidence. Maybe in the future we can do better. But I don't think we should convict the writer of bad science journalism on this point.

ON PREVIEW: more or less what Bunny said.
posted by grobstein at 10:45 AM on May 13 [14 favorites]


I have had the same sense, jessamyn, but it appears the idea is less woo than it once was.
posted by notyou at 10:47 AM on May 13 [2 favorites]


I die a little bit every time I think that some of my former bullies are still alive. Hah! Just kiddin', guys. Have another donut.
posted by No Robots at 10:48 AM on May 13 [1 favorite]


Wasn't there a study a while back which linked standing up to bullies to better social adjustment and confidence in adulthood? I just tried to find it but couldn't. I know I sure felt better after I punched a bully in the forehead. Still do!
posted by grumpybear69 at 10:49 AM on May 13 [2 favorites]


I've thought in the past that studies that talked about "inflammation" as if it were a medical thing were sort of woo-ish.

There's actually a thing called inflammation in medical science that the Mayo Clinic article linked above explains, and then there's the woo-y "inflammation" that is the cause of all modern ills and seems to have replaced "toxins" as the undefined thing that is making you feel bad in undefined ways. I think, but I'm not 100% sure, this is about the real one.
posted by griphus at 10:50 AM on May 13 [4 favorites]


jessamyn: "I've thought in the past that studies that talked about "inflammation" as if it were a medical thing were sort of woo-ish. Am I wrong in that? I would be okay being wrong."

It depends on the study.

The human body uses inflammation as a non-specific immune response to tissue damage arising from any of a number of factors, including bacteria or viruses, heat, trauma, toxins etc. Damaged cells release histamine, prostaglandins and bradykinin, causing blood vessels to leak into tissues and cause swelling. This has the effect of isolating both the damaged tissues and whatever caused the damage. The inflammation response also attracts phagocytes, which contribute to pus formation. Several studies have shown that stress -- especially chronic/prolonged stress -- can negatively affect the body's inflammatory response, reducing its ability to fight disease and damage.
posted by zarq at 10:50 AM on May 13 [19 favorites]


I don't know how reliable or valid the results are, but when passive people tell me how karma is going to "get" bullies, I will refer them to this study...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 10:50 AM on May 13 [2 favorites]


Maybe the causation is that those least prone to inflammation (and thus empathy to the suffering of others) will be the most likely to become bullies.
posted by Obscure Reference at 10:54 AM on May 13


One question I'd have is whether healthiness is also a prerequisite for being a bully. A sick, weak child is not likely to be a bully; but is rather more likely to be the victim of the bully, because the bully seeks easy targets.
posted by sonic meat machine at 10:56 AM on May 13 [5 favorites]


I've thought in the past that studies that talked about "inflammation" as if it were a medical thing were sort of woo-ish. Am I wrong in that? I would be okay being wrong.

Yea, i file it up there with the "human biome" type stuff about bacteria. Interesting to read most of the time, but utterly full of woo buzzwords and sideeye inducing phrasing. A lot of it just sounds like homeopathy speak to me.

Maybe i'm just overly sensitive to that sort of phrasing and writing though since my mother was obsessed with that kind of stuff for a few years, though.

On a totally different note though, i was actually a bit surprised that this had nothing to do with the actual direct bullying. I thought it was going to be some kind of expose on how harmful zero tolerance is.
posted by emptythought at 10:57 AM on May 13 [2 favorites]


Instant Karma's gonna get you
Gonna knock you right on the head
Unless you're a bully, that is
In which case, here:
Have the future's lunch money, instead
posted by Auntie Kreist at 10:59 AM on May 13 [4 favorites]


I remember how stressful being bullied was, like you felt it in your entire body. Especially if that lasted for years, that can't be healthy.
posted by Dip Flash at 11:01 AM on May 13 [12 favorites]


Yeah, no matter what Mom tells you about how kids only bully you because they're jealous or because they feel insecure about themselves or because someone else is bullying them and they need to take it out on somebody weaker - piffle. They do it because they enjoy it and they think it's fun.

I've known plenty of adults who happily admit to being former childhood bullies. They looks back on it fondly, laugh, and say things like, "Oh, it's just something kids do," "It was just harmless fun," "I still remember how funny he looked!" or "It's good for weaker kids to toughen them up; I was doing them a favor." I've known others who were truly flabbergasted to find out that their actions had an effect on their victims.

But it's not "just something kids do." I never had the impulse to hurt other children, even if I thought I could get away with it. It's something they chose to do, and weren't discouraged out of by the indulgent adults around them and the social structure that favored them.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:04 AM on May 13 [49 favorites]


This is pretty believable. Aren't the animals at the top of the social ladder usually the most physically robust? All that stuff about karma and whatever other magical forces are just ideas humans thought up but which other animals have no illusions about.
posted by ChuckRamone at 11:05 AM on May 13 [5 favorites]


I remember how stressful being bullied was, like you felt it in your entire body. Especially if that lasted for years, that can't be healthy.

Combine it with abuse at home, and hello, years of adult PTSD. No safe place to hide.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:05 AM on May 13 [8 favorites]


the bully seeks easy targets

In nature, this is known as "culling the nerd". All those antelopes you see getting run down by predators in nature documentaries could probably have gotten away if they just ditched their stupid backpack that's stuffed with 15lbs of books. Stupid antelope, carrying around all the Harry Potter hardcovers all the time, look where it got you now.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 11:06 AM on May 13 [23 favorites]


@The Underpants Monster Not to diminish the cruelty of it, but if they underwent intensive therapy, I guarantee they did it because it was something they learned from being bullied themselves. They just write off their own abuses as, "Something that kids go through."
posted by d20dad at 11:07 AM on May 13 [2 favorites]


Metafilter: Am I wrong in that? I would be okay being wrong.
posted by gottabefunky at 11:08 AM on May 13 [6 favorites]


Don't a lot of bullies do what they do because they're unhappy at home (i.e. being pushed around by a parent/older sibling)? That adds a whole other layer of complexity.
posted by gottabefunky at 11:10 AM on May 13


Don't a lot of bullies do what they do because they're unhappy at home (i.e. being pushed around by a parent/older sibling)? That adds a whole other layer of complexity.

I'm a firm believer that cruelty is taught. Either by experiencing it, or witnessing it. If a child idolizes his/her mother, father, brother or sister who are total assholes, they are going to emulate their idol's behavior in less sophisticated ways i.e. bullying.
posted by d20dad at 11:14 AM on May 13 [6 favorites]


Suddenly everyone in this thread seems to be a little fighty... Oh I get it you are all concerned about your health!
posted by Nanukthedog at 11:14 AM on May 13 [6 favorites]


I'm a firm believer that cruelty is taught. Either by experiencing it, or witnessing it. If a child idolizes his/her mother, father, brother or sister who are total assholes, they are going to emulate their idol's behavior in less sophisticated ways i.e. bullying.

So they would be under stress just like their victims would, no? It's not a black and white transferral of misery.
posted by gottabefunky at 11:15 AM on May 13 [2 favorites]


Science Journalism 101: so there are these two things called correlation and causation...

Internet Commenting on Statistics 101: My statistical knowledge stops and starts at correlation != causation.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 11:15 AM on May 13 [13 favorites]


Here's a link to the paper for all the four-eyed pipsqueaks

Published in Papers Not Accepted in Science. (TM)
posted by ocschwar at 11:18 AM on May 13


Don't a lot of bullies do what they do because they're unhappy at home (i.e. being pushed around by a parent/older sibling)? That adds a whole other layer of complexity.

The paper does address people who are both bullies and are bullied by others:
...two groups of children/adolescents often were lumped together in previous research as "bullies," although they are distinct in many features. If considered separately, one group of bullies - those who also are bullied themselves - the bully-victims have the worst long-term emotional problems and poor health outcomes... In contrast, there is evidence that those who perpetrate only, pure bullies, gain benefits from bullying others without incurring costs and may be healthier than their peers, emotionally and physically.
But from the Methods section, it looks like these bully/victims are only kids who were bullied by other kids at school, not by adults:
If the informant reported that the subject had been bullied or had bullied others, then the informant was asked separately how often the bullying occurred in the prior 3 mo in the following three settings: home, school, and the community. The focus in the current paper is on peer bullying in the school context only.
posted by theodolite at 11:19 AM on May 13 [3 favorites]


@gottabefunky Oh, absolutely. Sorry, I thought my statement made that clear. It becomes a little hazy though, as bullies get older, because they attribute their behavior and their own experiences as, "Something kids just go through." They transfer their own helplessness to others in an attempt to regain some form of control. But that doesn't make their behavior okay, and they should be held accountable for it. It's the only way such behavior ever changes.
posted by d20dad at 11:20 AM on May 13 [2 favorites]


@d20dad Agreed - My point was that bullies are really a conduit for unhappiness, not simply creators of it. Happy kids don't bully.
posted by gottabefunky at 11:27 AM on May 13 [1 favorite]


"They stood for quite a while in front of a cage containing a large family of capuchins, watching them eat, sleep, court, nurse, grooms and swarm aimlessly around the cage, while Jill surreptitiously tossed them peanuts despite 'No Feeding' signs.

She tossed one to a medium sized monk; before he could eat it a much larger male was on him and not only stole his peanut but gave him a beating, then left. The little fellow made no attempt to pursue his tormentor; be squatted at the scene of the crime, pounded his knucks against the concrete floor, and chattered his helpless rage. Mike watched it solemnly. Suddenly the mistreated monkey rushed to the side of the cage, picked a monkey still smaller, bowled it over and gave it a drubbing worse than the one he had suffered-after which he seemed quite relaxed. The third monk crawled away, still whimpering, and found shelter in the arm of a female who had a still smaller one, a baby, on her back. The other monkeys paid no attention to any of it. ...

... 'Of course it wasn't funny-it was tragic. That's why I had to laugh. I looked at a cageful of monkeys and suddenly I saw all the mean and cruel and utterly unexplainable things I've seen and beard and read about in the time I've been with my own people and suddenly it hurt so much I found myself laughing.'"
--Robert Heinlein, Stranger In a Strange Land

I've thought this was the case for a long time. It makes a lot of sense. Bullying is therapeutic, using violence of all types to shift stress onto others who lack recourse. The most aggressive bullies tend to have horrors lurking in their day-to-day lives and they have a pathological need to dispense with the stress those horrors cause.

Knowing didn't make it better or easier and I found it difficult to laugh from inside the monkey house.
posted by Appropriate Username at 11:28 AM on May 13 [8 favorites]


whoa, awesome. i hope if i ever have a kid, he or she will find pleasure in tormenting other kids. same as keeping up with their studies.
posted by indubitable at 11:30 AM on May 13 [1 favorite]


*checks blood pressure*

140 over 90

*punches grobstein and steals their lunch*

*checks blood pressure*

120 over 80

Okay. Carry on.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 11:34 AM on May 13 [5 favorites]


I wonder how this correlates with social stability and class. Because, if I had to hazard a guess, a fair number of the kids who bullied me in my middle school, which was somewhat of a rough environment, are already dead or incarcerated.
posted by mikeh at 11:35 AM on May 13 [1 favorite]


i wouldn't bet the ranch that bullies are necessarily going to enjoy better health

not when your victims are more likely to be carrying a weapon
posted by pyramid termite at 11:43 AM on May 13 [1 favorite]


The inflammation thing never struck me as woo. Inflammation is an over-reaction to the point where it stops helping. Our bodies and minds just have a tendency to do that.
posted by bleep at 11:43 AM on May 13 [3 favorites]


@mikeh I can say that all of the kids that I observed as bullies in my home town never left and now lead mediocre lives at best...and that's mediocre by small 2 star town standards.
posted by d20dad at 11:44 AM on May 13 [1 favorite]


I get that correlation/causation is an easy thing to say, but honestly, in this case, to suggest that "bullying is good for your health" -- that the same person, in the same circumstances, with the same life, is in better health from taking time out to go and be a dick to people as opposed to having the same social status, dealing with stress in other ways and not being a bully -- seems so nonsensical that I'm not surprised even the researcher is sort of hedging, saying that the high social status that's associated with bullying is good for you, not that bullying itself is good for you. If that's the case, then an alternative method of achieving a high status would be just as good -- there's no special magic to abusing others that makes you healthier. This is one of those cases where I know that you can't do controlled experiments and it's unfair to demand them, but without them, you really have to be careful about what gets proclaimed. It's an interesting study, but it really doesn't prove this, precisely because controlled experiments aren't possible.

I mean, taken to an extreme, to literally say that bullying is good for your health provides an argument that teaching kids not to be assholes is bad for them, and to me, if you're going to even hand-wave at that idea, you should have more than the not really surprising two-step calculus, "bullying tends to be associated with high status; high status is associated with better health." Because unless high status without bullying is worse for your health than high status with bullying, I feel like this has to be really ... handled with a little more care than this.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 11:47 AM on May 13 [6 favorites]


I think this study would have been more valuable if they'd included more categories besides bullied/bullies. The headline of the Time article is completely misleading and seems designed solely as clickbait, a very disappointing outcome when the researchers themselves are quoted in the article stating that they think it's social status rather than bullying per se that's correlated with lower (lower than what, by the way?) levels of systemic inflammation. I'd say it was a disgrace, if only Time magazine had any grace to lose at this point.
posted by clockzero at 11:50 AM on May 13 [2 favorites]


I've known plenty of adults who happily admit to being former childhood bullies.

I can believe it. It's asking too much of human nature to expect people to forgive those they have wronged. Easier, more comfortable, to downplay the significance. Hence the church's insistence on facing up to one's trespasses.

I'm a firm believer that cruelty is taught. Either by experiencing it, or witnessing it.

I'm not. I've seen too many perfectly nice parents with one charming child and one absolute devil (yeah yeah, I know, we can't tell 100% goes on behind closed doors, parents can play favorites, but even so). People experience and witness saints and sinners everyday. Why do some emulate the one, others the other, most a combination of both?

That said, I do believe that cruelty can be taught. Thus Basic Training. But that's getting into a different area.
posted by IndigoJones at 11:51 AM on May 13


@IndigoJones I think you're using extreme avatars in "saints and sinners" to lump people into bullies and those bullied. Casual cruelty can be corrected if the transgressor is repeatedly held accountable for it. It's a behavior that we learn to correct as we grow. Intentional cruelty is something else entirely, which is where bullying comes from.
posted by d20dad at 11:57 AM on May 13 [1 favorite]


Published in Papers Not Accepted in Science. (TM)

Only because they neglected to include evolutionary and neuro-phrenological components to their study.
posted by srboisvert at 12:08 PM on May 13 [1 favorite]


saying that the high social status that's associated with bullying is good for you, not that bullying itself is good for you. If that's the case, then an alternative method of achieving a high status would be just as good -- there's no special magic to abusing others that makes you healthier.

Well we can all agree that there's no "special magic" at work here or elsewhere.

But if the mechanism at hand is that bullying enhances your social status, which then has health benefits, then there's nothing deceptive or inaccurate about saying that bullying is good for your health.

By analogy: eventually we will learn what mechanisms mediate the link between exercise and health -- we'll say something like, jogging leads to the production of factors X, Y, and Z, which in turn promote various good health outcomes. But we wouldn't then deny that exercise is good for your health.

I mean, taken to an extreme, to literally say that bullying is good for your health provides an argument that teaching kids not to be assholes is bad for them, and to me, if you're going to even hand-wave at that idea, you should have more than the not really surprising two-step calculus, "bullying tends to be associated with high status; high status is associated with better health." Because unless high status without bullying is worse for your health than high status with bullying, I feel like this has to be really ... handled with a little more care than this.

You want to deny that doing bad can ever be good for the perpetrator, as though that's somehow absurd. Stealing can be good for your health, too -- when you steal you have more stuff. In a social environment that doesn't attach penalties to stealing, it might be a good idea. We allow bullies to prosper, and one of the consequences we reap seems to be that they are better off socially and physically for being bullies.

It seems to me much worse to deny, ostrich-like, that bullying could be good for you, than to allow that it might be. If we admit that bullies prosper then then we admit a problem with our social order that needs to be addressed. If we cling to the just-world fantasy that bullying must be bad for the bully, who gets humiliated later in life like at the movies, we are just lying to ourselves.

All that said, this is one study, not conclusive proof. But arguments of the form "But it would be bad if this were true!" should not have any traction.
posted by grobstein at 12:18 PM on May 13 [8 favorites]


to suggest that "bullying is good for your health" -- that the same person, in the same circumstances, with the same life, is in better health from taking time out to go and be a dick to people as opposed to having the same social status, dealing with stress in other ways and not being a bully -- seems so nonsensical

Not only is it nonsensical, its also not what the paper argues or the data show. Its being a bully vs. not being a bully, and emphatically not being a bully vs. dealing with stress in other ways.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 12:24 PM on May 13


I'm a firm believer that cruelty is taught. Either by experiencing it, or witnessing it.

I've certainly seen a lot of asshole kids who learned to be assholes from watching their asshole parents. After all, the "It's just something kids do" line is probably something they first heard from their parents excusing their awful behavior.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 12:25 PM on May 13 [4 favorites]


My reasoned, dispassionate, academic response to this "study" is that I would like to kick it in the balls.
posted by dry white toast at 12:28 PM on May 13 [2 favorites]


Given the findings that bullies who are also victims fare the worse, and bullies who are never peer-based victims do the best, it seems less that bullying it healthy for you than that there are positive health outcomes to not being challenged on your social status by your peers. If bullying were the protective feature, the bully-victims should have better health outcomes than the pure victims, and they don't.
posted by jaguar at 12:29 PM on May 13 [5 favorites]


But arguments of the form "But it would be bad if this were true!" should not have any traction.

When the implications of your causal link are particularly important, I feel perfectly fine about saying you should be extra-careful about making sure you don't overstate your actual findings, which is all I said. I am in no way anti-science or "ostrich-like." I am asking for solid science before inflammatory, clickbait headlines are written, and I stand by that.

Please don't tell me what I want. "This should be handled with more care than this" does not equal "STOMP STOMP STOMP BUT I'M SO ANGWY." I'm denying nothing; I'm suggesting that care be taken that we're not making this research more than it is.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 12:30 PM on May 13 [3 favorites]


If this new knowledge can be corroborated, it appears that a successful strategy to deploy against bullies might be to strike back? I think we should universally teach kids how to defend themselves! Let's call it "Bully Smack-Down Therapy".

I was bullied as a little kid until I got tired of it and beat the hell out of one of my oppressors in front of his peers. Let it be known that I felt an instant decrease in inflammation from that experience. Of course, there is "bully counseling" at school; it's in vogue these days - but that takes time - time that the bully has to do more of his/her "dirty work" on his/her victims.
posted by Vibrissae at 12:30 PM on May 13 [1 favorite]


As notyou pointed out in the linked article above, everyone who's had a headache or stubbed a toe knows about acute inflammation (it's the I in NSAID) but the idea of chronic systemic inflammation causing a variety of health problems is fairly new on the radar.

There's plenty of snake oil surrounding the word, as with all things medical, but chronic pain sufferers with RA or neuropathy whose doctors prescribe a cookie and an ibuprofen are very interested in this kind of thing.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 12:32 PM on May 13 [3 favorites]


I wish that someone would create a school social environment that discouraged bullying and the extremes of children's cliques.
posted by ZeusHumms at 12:33 PM on May 13 [3 favorites]


The guy who bullied me smashed his tuned 50cc motorbike into a street lamp and died, so there's that.
posted by dhoe at 12:33 PM on May 13 [5 favorites]


Schoolyard bullies may worry that their victims are free to be sniveling, cowardly worms with almost zero repercussions.

Is this someone's idea of funny? Try recasting it as a racial joke.

I found out that my own primary bully died about a decade ago, relatively young. It gave me some odd feelings.

I understand he had some difficulties in life. But that excuses nothing.
posted by DarkForest at 12:36 PM on May 13 [5 favorites]


This study points out that bullying is a good candidate for the list of Adverse Childhood Events (ACEs) already known to be associated with poor adult health:
OBJECTIVE:
To examine whether childhood traumatic stress increased the risk of developing autoimmune diseases as an adult.
METHODS:
Retrospective cohort study of 15,357 adult health maintenance organization members enrolled in the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Study from 1995 to 1997 in San Diego, California, and eligible for follow-up through 2005. ACEs included childhood physical, emotional, or sexual abuse; witnessing domestic violence; growing up with household substance abuse, mental illness, parental divorce, and/or an incarcerated household member. The total number of ACEs (ACE Score range = 0-8) was used as a measure of cumulative childhood stress. The outcome was hospitalizations for any of 21 selected autoimmune diseases and 4 immunopathology groupings: T- helper 1 (Th1) (e.g., idiopathic myocarditis); T-helper 2 (Th2) (e.g., myasthenia gravis); Th2 rheumatic (e.g., rheumatoid arthritis); and mixed Th1/Th2 (e.g., autoimmune hemolytic anemia).
RESULTS:
Sixty-four percent reported at least one ACE. The event rate (per 10,000 person-years) for a first hospitalization with any autoimmune disease was 31.4 in women and 34.4 in men. First hospitalizations for any autoimmune disease increased with increasing number of ACEs (p < .05). Compared with persons with no ACEs, persons with >or=2 ACEs were at a 70% increased risk for hospitalizations with Th1, 80% increased risk for Th2, and 100% increased risk for rheumatic diseases ... .
CONCLUSIONS:
Childhood traumatic stress increased the likelihood of hospitalization with a diagnosed autoimmune disease decades into adulthood. These findings are consistent with recent biological studies on the impact of early life stress on subsequent inflammatory responses.
And as the last line of the quoted abstract implies, inflammation is a central feature of autoimmune illnesses in general, including, among many others, lupus, type I diabetes, MS, and asthma.
posted by jamjam at 12:36 PM on May 13 [9 favorites]


One interesting confound not accounted for, near as I can tell, is the social approval of bullying that had in the past existed in Western Society (at least the US and England) and which might now be shifting in the minds of the people for whom it's important - namely the adults who set the rules of childhood interactions. Culturally speaking in the past, reasons for bullying focused on why the victim deserved it and the presumed positive effects for the victims; victim blaming is central to maintaining a status quo of turning a blind eye to inappropriate and cruel behavior among children, or excuse it with "boys will be boys" and "you need to toughen up".

Recent shifts in how we discuss victomology, though, a growing emphasis on not blaming the victim (at least in publically spoken words), as well as a growth in victims themselves speaking out about why it isn't their fault, blaming them is stupid, and emphasis should be placed on stopping the bullies from bullying may change these effects - especially since they are effects of enhanced social standing; if being a bully leads to lowered social standing, the balance of advantages will change.

For example, a growing response to bullying is social solidarity with the victim - for example the boy who was teased for wearing a tutu so his teacher wore one too, or the students who all wore pink in solidarity for another boy teased for wearing pink - and that profoundly changes the social dynamics. Women who are bullied online are finding increased support and solidarity in other women who are also bullied, now that it's being spoken about, and many report feeling so much better knowing not only that they aren't alone, but that lots of people agree that the bullies are wrong. A lot of the excuses for bullying fall along lines of existing social marginalization (race, culture, language, gender, gender expression, sexual orientation, gender identity, physical appearance, etc...).

One thing eclipsed in the article entirely is the simple fact that we, as people, together, decide what determines social standing. If we chose to excuse cruelty and blame victims, we create a society in which bullies get health benefits. If we chose to support victims, protect them (and us - most everyone is a victim sometime to something), and stand in solidarity with them when we're the strong ones, than we may be able to create a society where victims get health benefits.

I'm for the latter, personally.
posted by Deoridhe at 12:39 PM on May 13 [23 favorites]


I understand that the "correlation != causation" trope can be overused, but to title this article "Bullying is Good for your Health" is such an over-extrapolation of this data that it really, really deserves to be called out (I'm talking about the Time article, not the PNAS). Just because the correlation is consistent with that possibility in no way warrants implying that causal relationship as fact, especially when there are countless alternative mechanisms that are at least as plausible (third variables correlated with both health and bullying). If they had titled it "Bullies are Healthier", it would have been completely different.

For what it's worth, I research, publish and teach in the social sciences, and I would happily use this article to demonstrate poor science reporting (and poor scientific inference) to my undergrads.
posted by svenx at 12:42 PM on May 13 [4 favorites]


This is a prospective, longitudinal study. Early measures predicting later measures allows a much stronger (but still arguable) causal conclusion. There's no simple way to argue that something that emerges only later in life can cause something that was present earlier; there is, however, still a third-variable problem insofar as some other factor might be the cause of both, though.
posted by anaphoric at 12:46 PM on May 13


there is, however, still a third-variable problem insofar as some other factor might be the cause of both, though.

Exactly, and I think Time's reporting sucked because of this. It's not a reach to think that kids who generally react with less stress to confrontation might be more likely to bully other kids, while kids who generally react with more stress to confrontation might be less likely to bully other kids, and that a kid's general physical reaction to confrontation might be the causal factor.
posted by jaguar at 12:51 PM on May 13


Is this someone's idea of funny? Try recasting it as a racial joke.

Amazingly, this formulation can be used to challenge pretty much anything.

Is the Magna Carta someone's idea of a document foundational to democratic freedom? Try recasting it as a racial joke.
posted by shakespeherian at 12:57 PM on May 13 [15 favorites]


Feeling a little under the weather.

Hey, shakespeherian, stop hitting yourself. Stop hitting yourself.

Seriously, dude, stop hitting yourself.

Aaaaaaaaaah, much better. Cheers, you little wanker!
posted by Samizdata at 1:02 PM on May 13 [1 favorite]


And why are you still hitting yourself?

(So, I'm easily bored.)
posted by Samizdata at 1:02 PM on May 13


But if the mechanism at hand is that bullying enhances your social status, which then has health benefits, then there's nothing deceptive or inaccurate about saying that bullying is good for your health.

Don't be an idiot. If this is true, then Rob Ford is the healthiest man on Earth.
posted by octobersurprise at 1:04 PM on May 13


Well, so that happened.
posted by shakespeherian at 1:04 PM on May 13 [2 favorites]


shakespeherian: "Well, so that happened."

Yeah, but don't beat yourself up over it.
posted by zarq at 1:18 PM on May 13 [5 favorites]


It's been a while since the ol' correlation != causation!!!!11!11!!11eleven appeared in the very first comment. Kudos to you, sir.
posted by Justinian at 1:31 PM on May 13 [1 favorite]


Internet Commenting on Statistics 101: My statistical knowledge stops and starts at correlation != causation.

It's been a while since the ol' correlation != causation!!!!11!11!!11eleven appeared in the very first comment. Kudos to you, sir.

You know that's not a rebuttal, right? Sometimes the complaint is actually valid.

I don't know about the paper (will read shortly), but the article is claiming that being a bully leads to better health later in life. Not that being a bully advantages you later in life, which would be more credible, but that it makes you healthier. That bullies are advantaged later in life is more credible, but they're smart not to argue a direct causation there - they imply that the traits that make you a bully later make you a success, not that the act of bullying itself necessarily creates success.

But while the data does suggest that that being bullied decreases health, because there are noticeable spikes in inflammatory chemicals when a child is bullied, they don't mention any corresponding dips in chemicals when people act as bullies, just overall lower levels later in life. To argue causation, they'd have to rule out competing theories - bullies are often larger and physically fit, so perhaps healthier children are both more likely to have low inflammation and also be bullies; or perhaps bullying behavior leads to some other behavior that potentially improves health, like having more sex or smoking more pot.

The journalist saw a correlation and reported it as a cause without considering the alternatives. I know it's an old saw, but what do you want me to say?
posted by Peevish at 2:21 PM on May 13 [2 favorites]


The journalist saw a correlation and reported it as a cause without considering the alternatives

No, the journalist read the paper, and the authors' words that identified a possible causal mechanism, and then reported it.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 2:35 PM on May 13


> No, the journalist read the paper, and the authors' words that identified a possible causal mechanism, and then reported it.

The problem was when that possible causal mechanism was reported as a statement of fact.
posted by svenx at 2:42 PM on May 13 [2 favorites]


Agreed. But of course the scientists will hedge while the journalist flat out declares things.

For anyone who thinks correlation =! causation is a valid rebuttal to this research, why do you think PNAS would publish apparently spurious correlations where researchers didn't argue in favor of a causal mechanism?
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 2:46 PM on May 13


I'm a firm believer that cruelty is taught.
posted by d20dad at 7:14 PM on May 13


And I'm a firm believer that this is wishful thinking, and that some people are just bastards by nature. I've seen evidence of that far too often to think otherwise. But of course, there's a spectrum. It's not either/or.
posted by Decani at 3:00 PM on May 13


There was a lot less angst about causation criticism before that incredibly pretentious Slate article. Correlation is not equal to causation is a trite, but reasonable, criticism of headline science. Has snarking at the snarker really improved the quality of this Metafilter thread?
posted by Skwirl at 3:09 PM on May 13


Nah, my daughter grew up away from her abusive father but she does so many things he did down to threatening to harm herself to controlling people. What I do think epigenetic ads to this picture is that environment variables can increase or decrease behaviors like this and sociopathic traits may confer benefits in certain environments. my whole family is affected by at birth adoption supposedly to fix everything but a lot of these behaviors are passed on through multiple mechanisms. My father was beaten regularly by his older brother to the point of fearing for his life every day. my dad has cognitive impairments while his brother is a highly successful architect building museums and things for the city. From animal studies we are finding a lot of these kinds of environment variables can have generational effects beyond just parenting style as adoptees can be altered as well.
posted by xarnop at 3:11 PM on May 13 [2 favorites]


sfkiddo: "Can't speak to the science, but this wouldn't surprise me. Some of the bullies grow up and become workplace bullies, which is a nice esteem-boosting power trip. All the work bullies I've encountered seem to be doing great. And, to add insult to injury, as grown-ups their victims can't suddenly snap and hit them over the head with a rock (as a, um, friend of mine often fantasized about)."

After Columbine, I laughed about how if I had still been in school and someone saw my Junior Yearbook I would have been in big trouble, writing the word "die" over the bullies and their associates.

My boss can be a bully. I've had the gumption to stand up now and then. I am full of rage and anger. I think he lives in fear of me, to a degree. But I work hard enough so we have this weird relationship. We both dislike each others negative sides but respect each others good sides. He's out of shape and seemingly at risk to health problems, but generally is fit... Still goes hunting in the wild at retirement age, long walks in the woods and such... but I think his freedom to vent and get that aggression out has been "healthy" for him, and had he not had that freedom it would have been stifled, like me, and probably have kicked the bucket by now.

I'm told my nemesis (my bully still shows up in my dreams 20 years later) is a bit of a loser. He goes shooting with his dad and friend of mine's dad (one of my BFFs, actually, which is kinda strange)... My friend said while everyone's in the hangout/bar at the shooting club, most people are all comingling, but the nemesis just kinda sits by his dad...
posted by symbioid at 3:21 PM on May 13


Inflammation also plays a huge role in type II diabetes, chronic obesity, and heart disease. And cancer, and... Yes it's the underpinning of American health decline, largely the product of our food supply and sedentary lifestyle. There's plenty of room for woo since the inflammation response is a healing response that requires constant moderation and over time can destroy its host through the introduction of other diseases whether opportunistic or autologous in nature, so it's a fertile ground for hocking supplements etc.
posted by aydeejones at 3:55 PM on May 13 [3 favorites]


I've thought in the past that studies that talked about "inflammation" as if it were a medical thing were sort of woo-ish.

Nope, it's a real thing - especially as it related to autoimmune disease and - as it pertains to this - responses of the body to stress. It's one of the reasons stress is linked to heart disease and high blood pressure. The wikipedia article is pretty decent at giving a broad overview of the different types.

This is not to say talk of inflammation cannot be suborned to woo, but it's definitely not to be dismissed out of hand. My colitis (real disease, with doctors and everything!) is characterised by inflammation of the intestine from a wonky immune response, for example. I do not believe in "toxins", heh heh.

posted by smoke at 4:33 PM on May 13 [1 favorite]


grobstein >

You want to deny that doing bad can ever be good for the perpetrator, as though that's somehow absurd. Stealing can be good for your health, too -- when you steal you have more stuff. In a social environment that doesn't attach penalties to stealing, it might be a good idea. We allow bullies to prosper, and one of the consequences we reap seems to be that they are better off socially and physically for being bullies.

It seems to me much worse to deny, ostrich-like, that bullying could be good for you, than to allow that it might be. If we admit that bullies prosper then then we admit a problem with our social order that needs to be addressed. If we cling to the just-world fantasy that bullying must be bad for the bully, who gets humiliated later in life like at the movies, we are just lying to ourselves.


I think you make a good point in terms of thoughtful rationality. We shouldn't deny the reality of causal relationships in social life because they might have upsetting implications.

On the other hand, though, the finding here is that high social status is correlated with low inflammation, and there's a relationship between that and bullying. It's not bullying that's good for people, it's high status. What we really need are cross-cultural comparisons, otherwise we have no idea if the relationship between bullying and health is spurious.
posted by clockzero at 4:52 PM on May 13


Bullying can be fairly complex. There are many social factors involved. Here's my vague oversimplification:

Alpha Chimps are usually strong smart assholes who don't give a crap about your feelings and pick on you without thinking too much about it, just because it's a convenient way to assert their primary social status. They often go on to law school and become politicians or corporate execs. This group is what the above article describes, but it's only a small slice of the whole real bullying dynamic.

Beta Chimps are only sometimes strong but not that smart, and they often come from unhappy families where they are bullied by a parent. They lash out in frustration because they have learned that aggression is how human beings interact with each other.

Gamma Chimps are the people who get picked on by bullies because they are gawky or different, and who figure out that the best way to avoid being bullied is to deflect attention away from themselves by bullying someone else even smaller or weaker than they are. The sad thing is that it works, that it's an easy and efficient way to avoid being targeted. But if your sense of empathy is overridden by your survival instinct, then it can mess with your head in the long run. Margaret Atwood described these kinds of dynamics in her novel Cat's Eye, and other works.

Delta Chimps are authority figures in our institutions who assert their dominance in the social hierarchy, sometimes with the threat of force. This might apply more to the 20th Century. Back when I was young, schools used physical force to enforce discipline, and I didn't like it much myself. I have the impression that school discipline is generally less violent now. But Hierarchies will always exist, and should be addressed in a meaningful way.
posted by ovvl at 6:55 PM on May 13 [2 favorites]


I'm a firm believer that cruelty is taught.

I'm a pretty firm believer that cruelty is innate, and that what actually gets taught (or not) is a prohibition on exercising it.

Ever watched a toddler pick exactly the right time and place to have a meltdown that inflicts maximum possible stress on a parent? That's straight-up bullying right there.
posted by flabdablet at 8:04 PM on May 13


arguments of the form "But it would be bad if this were true!" should not have any traction.

The moralistic fallacy, lesser known cousin of the more popular naturalistic fallacy.
posted by obliterati at 9:29 PM on May 13


Eating and sleeping also have to be taught.
posted by bleep at 10:12 PM on May 13


Ever watched a toddler pick exactly the right time and place to have a meltdown that inflicts maximum possible stress on a parent? That's straight-up bullying right there.

Wait, what?

Toddlers have meltdowns because they are experiencing stress, not to "inflict stress on a parent." Meltdowns are a loss of emotional control, not an attempt to control someone else.

Attributing that kind of scheming to a toddler is some straight up "To Train Up a Child" abuse-justifying bullshit.

Not to say that people (including toddlers) aren't selfish and thoughtless of others at times, especially if they haven't been taught empathy and respect, but no toddler is capable of "bullying" an adult. Their crying does not hurt you at all.
posted by OnceUponATime at 1:18 PM on May 14 [1 favorite]


Wait, what?

Toddlers have meltdowns because they are experiencing stress, not to "inflict stress on a parent."


When the stress a small person is experiencing is the stress of not having some whim granted instantly, and that small person knows from months of prior experience that completely losing their shit can in fact get them what they want, that's a difference that makes no difference.

Their crying does not hurt you at all.

Well it does, because I hate seeing a small person in distress.

And Ira is, as ever, worth a listen.
posted by flabdablet at 1:53 PM on May 14


straight up "To Train Up a Child" abuse-justifying bullshit

is indeed bullshit, because abuse is not justifiable. Abuse doesn't train up children; it trains them down.

Moderate levels of stress drive change and growth. Trauma does the opposite. In my view, people who belt their kids are doing it wrong. Infliction of pain and/or humiliation by the very people a child is relying on for love and nurturing absolutely counts as trauma.
posted by flabdablet at 2:02 PM on May 14


When the stress a small person is experiencing is the stress of not having some whim granted instantly, and that small person knows from months of prior experience that completely losing their shit can in fact get them what they want, that's a difference that makes no difference.

By and large, that sort of conscious planning seems much more frontal-lobe level stuff, which means it's part of the later brain development. Keep in mind, until children are around four to five they do not have the capability of lying, much less predicting the complicated behavior of someone who is not-them. The development of the theory of mind (and then the theory of other-minds-aren't-me) is a fascinating sub-discipline of developmental psych, and I feel like you're leaping rather far ahead of most children.

What you describe could be explained with operant conditioning fairly easily, you just have to drop the assumption that the child wants to harm others. If one has raised any animal with a pattern of refusal-of-object / behavior / reward, then the person will repeat the pattern not because of a desire to cruelly abuse the person with the reward but because they have learned that this is the pattern of how one gets things. I'm currently playing this game with my cat, trying to teach him to sit; I show him the treat, I make him sit, I give him the treat - this is very basic classical conditioning. Responding to operant conditioning appears to be fairly instinctive, however, and rarely includes a conscious chosen aspect (I've found a lot of my instinctive, unexplained axioms can be traced back to operant conditioning).

There is a marked tendency in adults to read cruelty/disobedience into the behavior of children where it doesn't exist. I remember speaking with a friend about her infant daughter, who she was having to clean up after the child ate. My friend told me about how her six month old was "bad" because she kept fighting getting clean, and so she was considering adding a butt smack to punish her for being disobedient. I asked her if the cloth might be too rough. She tried it that night with a softer, wetted cloth and the child was magically no longer "bad".
posted by Deoridhe at 5:49 PM on May 22 [2 favorites]


the person will repeat the pattern not because of a desire to cruelly abuse the person with the reward but because they have learned that this is the pattern of how one gets things.

That's pretty much my point, and my statement that a public meltdown occasioning horrible stress for a parent constitutes bullying does indeed identify bullying as a behavior, independent of motivation.

If we do start to consider motivation, that's a pretty deep rabbit hole. Does a motivated bully have an actual desire to cruelly abuse another person, or is it merely habit? If the desire is there, why?

The TAL episode I linked to earlier does a really good job of going into these issues and is well worth a listen.

My own view is that cruelty is best understood as one of several forms of expression for the fundamental viewpoint that my wants and desires matter and yours don't, and that this viewpoint is the starting point for pretty much every organism.

I'm not sure it matters much whether "yours don't" proceeds from an inability to conceptualize "you" as a thing like "me" (which is certainly the case for the two-year-old) or whether it's more like a deliberate policy stance; in either case I think it's something people will just naturally come to unless they're given good reasons - like loving, kind, gentle, supportive, insightful, empathetic parents - not to; and that in some cases, like that of the murderous child from the TAL episode, even that doesn't work.
posted by flabdablet at 10:56 PM on May 24


If a Student Says Homosexuality Is a Sin in School, Is It Bullying?- "And other controversial questions raised by a new Tennessee law that claims to protect religious kids from discrimination"
posted by the man of twists and turns at 3:47 PM on June 10


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