Sunday, November 02, 2008

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".

Dangerous consequences
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?


Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Donald!

'Twas ever thus in education.

It never ceases to amaze me how educationalists continue to put (so-called) theory into practice despite clear evidence that indicates that it's false. I wonder if it is the misdirected use of theory through a misunderstanding of how these evolve - or are supposed to evolve.

It's simply not scientific.

Ka kite
from Middle-earth

Donald Clark said...

1. Teacher training is clearly one choke point, perpetuating old and outdated ideas.

2.The fact that teaching is the only unionised profession means a fundamentally reactionary attitude towards theoretical and practical progress. Note that this is not an attack on unions (I was a union rep myself) only that unions defend the working rights of their members, not learners.

3. The exclusion of external managers and advisors to the system means the perpetuation of deeply embedded institutional behaviour. Parents, governors and others are largely regarded as a problem to be contained, not a source of energy and innovation.

Lots of other reasons....

I saw that you're an Edinburgh lad Ken - where exactly?

Unknown said...

Hi, I'm an educator and wholeheartedly agree we are doing a diservice to those in our charge. I disagree that it is the unions upholding member's rights because I don't see that happening. I do see management, which appears to have completely forgotten what it is like to be in the classroom, pushing what is perceived to be the "feel good" philosphy parents are wanting whether it is in the best long-term interests of the student or not. I have many colleagues who begrudgingly pass a student who didn't earn the pass simply because it is what management expects. This, in my opinion, promotes an elevated and unhealthy sense of self as well as sets up the student for future frustration when he/she encounters any opposition to his/her inflated sense of self.
Please keep up your efforts at educating educators, particularly the administration who set policy. Our society depends on it.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Tēnā koe Donald.

Yes, I studied at Edinburgh for 7 years - degree and then research - and taught for a number of years both during that time and after.

I lived in different areas, including Haymarket, and also the famed Easter Road, right across from Hibernian Football Ground.

For a couple of years I lived close to Colinton to the west. My home town was Dunfermline in Fife, 20 miles north west of Edinburgh and across the Forth River. They say it takes a long spoon to sup with a Fifer :-)

Catchya later

Donald Clark said...

Thanks Ken. We have a lot in common. I also studied in Edinburgh and my first flat was in Dalmeny Street (Leith Walk one end, Easter Road the other). I grew up in West Lothian - just across the Forth in Queensferry then Livingston. Wonderful thing this blogging!

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Well, well, Donald.

I lived between Iona Street and Dalmeny Street when flatting in Easter Road, 1971 - 72. Your flat would have been just round the corner.

I used to enjoy the walks around St Anne's Malting and the Drambuie Liqueur factory - both disused at that time.

I recall when they knocked down the tall brick chimney of the Drambuie factory. It had 'Drambuie Liqueur' painted along its entire length and was quite an iconic scene in its day.

Catchya later

Donald Clark said...

Edinburgh remains my favourite city for just walking about - I'm back every year for the Festival and at least 3/4 other times a year, as all of our relatives still live there. We'll have to meet up for a pint in Edinburgh some day - Cafe Royal, Guildford, Boundary Bar, Central Bar, Mathers, Milnes....I could go on for some time with this list!

I also stayed in flats in Royal Crescent, Southside (St Leonards) and Morningside.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Milne's Bar sounds good. My haunts were Deacon's and Bobby's with Sandy Bell's a preferred option if you could get in! I used to folk sing around the pubs in Edinburgh and had a regular spot at the Iona Hotel cocktail bar upstairs. But I could never figure how the folk singers in Sandy's could manage to get any elbow room!

James said...

Reminds me of the quote from psychologist martin seligman when someone asked him about shootings in high schools and he respondedalong the lines of:

"We keep telling our kids they can be anything they want to be when clearly this isn't true and there's nothing worse than a kid with high self esteem and a mean streak"

Donald Clark said...

Yip - I blame Freud - all of this attribution of causality to the unconscious - everyone became an amateur pychoanalist, long after the whole thing has been discredited.

Donald Clark said...

Ken - know those haunts well. I seem to remember the Iona Hotel being a Sunday afternoon drinking haunt.

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TB Tabby said...

The reason this myth is perpetuated is simple: people WANT to believe it. They want to believe that children are innocent and blameless, especially their own children. Thus, if they're seen doing something sadistic and cruel, there MUST be a good reason for it. Confirmation bias always opens the door to logical fallacies. When evidence refutes the "low self-esteem" claim, they just claim that the bully's low self-esteem is hidden "deep down inside," so deep that psychologists can't detect it, and yet the bully apologists find it every time. Funny, that. Only the people who want to see it are able to see it.

Silver Surfer said...

Self esteem is something that can be viewed as a sliding scale indicator, simply by implying that it can be high or low confirms that it falls on a spectrum and is neither one or another. I think what you call a high self esteem is simply arrogance and over inflated pride. Esteem itself is a word meaning estimate. So self esteem is a self-estimate, and an estimate is a measurement, so falls into the category of opinion and not fact. It is possible that someone suffering "high self esteem" as you put it is simply someone who has grandiose opinions about themselves in a certain area. So if you want to see that person exhibit lower sides of their self esteem, and remember that's a self estimate of self based on one's own judgement. If you take that same person and put them in a board room, they would likely crumble. Take them in any environment where they cannot perform to even a reasonable standard, inside they'd be crumbling.

Anonymous said...

This is a well written article that everyone should read. As a victim of bullying myself AND I had a narcissistic brother who was a bully I concur. The myth that bullies have LOW self esteem MUST be eradicated if bullying is ever going to be properly addressed.

Nic Price said...

As with many similar bits of nonsense, I'm not sure if it has that much impact on practice. I don't recall ever trying to (or even being asked to) boost the ego of a bully. A pupil caught bullying is more likely to be reduced to tears, in detention, writing letters of apology and given what amounts to a restraining order (often meaning they suffer social consequences). These are humbling experiences rather than ego-boosts. As with any set-back, teachers will then start to work on fixing relationships - no-one is going to benefit from eternal damnation.

Donald Clark said...

Not my experience. I witnessed the very opposite in the school I was a Governor in for years. The bullying problem never went away in the manner you described. I've seen weak student management result in strong characters not being checked and causing havoc.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Tēnā korua Donald and Nic

Most strategies used in schools to counter bullying make only modest improvements, if any. There are several studies being done in New Zealand on bullying in schools right now and some of the findings are indictments to previous claims made by schools that bullying does not exist there. In fact, studies show that if a school claims that there is no bullying, it is a sure sign that bullying is happening in that school. It has been evident for decades that schools cover up incidences of bullying for fear of the school being labelled.

A whole of country strategy of schools sharing what they know is being proposed at the moment since there has been no large scale effort made to find out what works best in certain situations. But in the main, schools do not want to share, which tends to defeat any attempt made to find key factors that may lead to a better understanding.

See NZ schools keep bullying to themselves.

Further to this, there seems to be some (albeit anecdotal) evidence that bullying within the staff of some schools may well be at the root of their sheer inability to do anything about the bullying that's occurring between students in these schools, which could complicate the matter even more.

My own experience is that schools do cover up bullying and I have seen this done blatently and overtly by a principal of a school I taught in during the 1980s. It appears that nothing has changed.

However, sharing between schools may not bring forward quick solutions since, like action research, what works in one environment may not necessarily be applicable or work in another.

"It takes a community to educate a child." I feel that it may also take a community to solve the problem of bullying, if the community wants to address that problem. Of course, the first step towards solving any problem is recognising that it exists.

Catchya later