Do bullies have low self-esteem or a surplus of esteem & narcissism? Why I changed my mind
It's always satisfying to read something that makes you turn one of your views on its head. A good example is the Scientific American article 'Violent Pride' (2008), where the traditional attitude towards bullies and violent young men was truly trounced. My memories of school are not good. Two tough, often violent, Scottish, secondary schools where few went on to Higher Education. As a bookish sort of kid, my day started with anxiety, and was puntuated by breaks and lunchtime, which I dreaded, when predators would be on the prowl. I'd like to say that the classrooms were safe refuges but back then there were a couple of teachers with leather straps, who literally broke the blood vessels in my wrist with the 'tawse', a thick, two-tongued leather strap. The first time this happpened was when I was 5 minutes late for school - the bus was late, not my fault - didn't matter. A straight six. I'm still burning with the injustice of that incident. In any case, I had many years of witnessing the problem I'm about to describe.
Low self-esteem theory
The traditional view in schools and social work, is that problematic, and often violent bullies, suffer from low self esteem. When Roy Bauermeister looked for research to support this view, he found zilch. Not content with this, he went on to complete a thorough set of research projects to see if his hypothesis, that they have an overabundance of esteem, even narcissism, was true.
Bullies have high self-esteem
What he found was shocking. Far from having LOW self-esteem, they were egoistical with grandiose views of themselves. Their inflated sense of self-importance meant that, when threatened, or perceived to have been threatened, they turned to violence. Their research were confirmed when they extended their studies to prisoners, where murderers and violent offenders, on the whole had high scores on self-esteem studies. Alcohol often acted as a trigger as it boosted their esteem. In a series of clever trials he showed that threatened egoists and narcissists were the norm in bullying and violent behaviour, not threatened low self-esteem.
Tough on outside, weak inside?
But couldn't it be that their low self-esteem is just hidden, deep inside? This was the vorthodox view, on the back of the feudian paradigm, where unconscious drives lurked benetha every act. The research here was also clear. Those who have studied violence, from playground bullies to gang culture, have found no evidence of hidden low self-esteem. "In contrast to a fairly common assumption among psychologists and psychiatrists, we have found no indicators that the aggressive bullies are anxious and insecure under a tough surface".
Two thirds of teachers have experienced bullying, one in four pupils and similar numbers in the workplace. The danger that lurks in many schools and institutions is that staff are encouraged to boost already bloated egos in the mistaken belief that they have low self-esteem. This is to inflate already overblown egos to become larger and more dangerous. Praise, in other words, needs to be tied to actual behaviour and performance, not dispensed freely. Could it be that our schools have become more dangerous because the bullies have been inadvertently molly-coddled?