Our good friend Dr. Janina Scarlet wrote us a wonderful, in-depth piece on the psychology of bullying, what do do about it, compassion and superhero therapy.
In order for us to understand bullying, we must first understand its opposite, compassion. Compassion is a term used in many contexts. Movies, such as X-Men, and TV shows, like Doctor Who, and web series, such as The Doctor Horrible Sing-Along Blog, mention compassion, and news and science articles are advocating just how important this concept is. So then what does the word compassion actually mean? Does it mean reacting with kindness, or treating others with respect, or does it refer to being altruistic and helping others?
Compassion refers to noticing when someone else is suffering (mindfulness), understanding what that someone is going through (empathy), and the desire or the action to help that being feel better. For example, if we saw our dear friend or a beloved pet going through a hard time, how would we feel?
Most of us would probably feel sad about our loved one being hurt and would try to do whatever we could to help them feel better. This is compassion. Compassion is very adaptive as it allows for our survival. It ensures that we help others around us when they are in need; it also makes sure that we take care of our children and others for whom we are responsible/care about.
There are specific areas in the brain that are directly responsible for compassion. For example, we have certain brain cells, called mirror neurons that allow us to imagine and to an extent, experience, what someone else is going through. For example, when watching the X-Men or playing Arkham City, if we connect with the characters, we might actually feel sad when they are hurt and feel excited when they succeed. These mirror neurons allow us to “put ourselves in the shoes of others” (experience empathy) in order to understand how others might feel.
Certain parts of the brain also need to communicate to one another in a specific way in order for us to be able to experience compassion. These brain areas are each responsible for different functions. For example the Prefrontal Cortex is typically involved in planning, logic, and other higher functions, whereas the anterior cingulate cortex is involved in processing physical and psychological pain. Finally, the insula is responsible for perception of taste, as well as our perception of the pain of others. These areas need to be able to send messages to one another in order for us to experience compassion. People who are biologically incapable of feeling compassion, sociopaths, like the living depictions of the Joker or Lord Voldemort, often show reduced communications between these brain areas. However, true sociopathy is rare (approximately 1%).
So if only 1% of people have biological predispositions to lacking empathy, then why are there more than 1% of unempathic people out there? The lack of empathy and even outright bullying and behaving in ways to purposely hurt others can happen for any number of reasons. For one, bullying/hurtful behaviors can be learned by watching others or by being placed in certain circumstances. For example, students of Stanford University were randomly selected to act like either prisoners or prison guards as a part of a research study in 1971. Very quickly both “prisoners” and “guards” started acting the part. Even if they were normally kind and compassionate people themselves, the students portraying the role of the guards became abusive and even torturous toward the “prisoners.” In fact, the “prisoners” were treated so badly, their physical and psychological conditions in jeopardy, that the experiment had to be discontinued prior to the scheduled date. Forty years later, some of the participants who acted as prisoners still report having nightmares about their experience. This study highlights the importance of assigned roles and demonstrates how easy it is to lose ourselves in the assigned role, which can even make us commit monstrous acts.
Even in the absence of assigned roles or the pressures from authority figures, many abusive and thoughtless acts can take place online via cyber bullying, cyber stalking, and doxing (publishing someone’s private information online). The Internet is an easy place to become anonymous, or at the very least, many believe that it is. When we are in a physical (or potentially, a virtual) crowd, where we can become anonymous, we can potentially lose our sense of identity and act in a less inhibited way or make more extreme decisions than we otherwise would when speaking to someone face to face. This phenomenon is called de-individuation. Often, when people are on the Internet or in a large crowd, such as during a protest, for example, they might actually act in a more cruel way than they normally would.
What I truly think is one of the main reasons why people act in an unkind way toward others is because they themselves might be suffering. Most people who are harsh or outright mean toward others are the ones who are most in need of compassion. Child abuse, rejection, low self-esteem, lack of a positive support group are just some of the reasons that someone might revert to bullying because bullying is one way some people feel they maintain control. If we don’t have adequate resources, such as enough food, sleep, finances, and social support, we might take it out on other people, some people more than others.
As we move on with our hectic, fast-paced lives, we sometimes aren’t able to notice that someone else might need our help. We might ignore the person that fell off their bicycle, walk right by a homeless person asking for food, or completely disregard the person being robbed right in front of us. In a recent study, a group of participants were shown pictures of people, including homeless people. For many of the participants, their neurological reactions to homeless people were similar to those of something repulsive, like a vermin, only perceiving the homeless individual with the disgust areas of the brain but without the involvement of the empathy centers of the brain. Arguably, that is how some might perceive some members of certain minorities, such as African Americans, Jewish or Muslim people, and/or women. Many hate crimes might be based off of this neural activity, showing a complete disregard for the suffering of another human being. It seems that a similar neural pattern might have been present in the people who recently harassed Zelda Williams, the daughter of the late Robin Williams, by sending her abusive messages and Photoshopped pictures of a man hanging on a tree. This pattern of behavior suggests a clear lack of empathy for the person who is suffering.
The good news is that in most cases, compassion can be taught. Sometimes even as little of a task as considering the food preferences of another human being can be enough to remind us that we are looking at a human being, someone with feelings, someone who hurts, just like us, and someone who wishes to be happy, just like us.
Sometimes reminding ourselves what others might be going through, such as in this powerful video can make a big difference. It seems that as we take a moment, or several moments, and really acknowledge the person in front of us, noticing their facial features, one by one, looking at them, and I mean really looking at them and remembering that the person in front of you was once a child, just like you were, full of hopes and dreams, and are just trying to do what they can, just like you. I invite you to actually practice this exercise of really looking at someone you know, or maybe someone you don’t know at all, pause for a moment admiring the person that you see, and perhaps silently wish them well, maybe something along the lines of “may you be happy, may you be free from suffering.”
I would like to challenge you to become a compassionate superhero yourself. If you see someone being hurt or bullied, do something. You don’t have to confront the bully, but do offer some comfort to the person being bullied. Sometimes a small gesture, such as a warm smile or a hug can make all the difference. In case you haven’t seen or heard of it yet, check out Compassion It, a non-profit movement, which aims to spread compassion globally.
The idea behind the bracelet is that you put it on one side (let’s say the black one), and then once you’ve done something compassionate, you flip it to the other side. Are you ready to become a compassionate Superhero? Let’s do it!
Dr. Janina Scarlet is a clinical psychologist and a scientist, who specializes in compassion and geek culture
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