american-marines-help-pull-down-the-statue-of-saddam-hussain-pic-m-552206832The world is presently witnessing two awful spectacles of bullying on a global scale: the terrible tragedy in Gaza and Russia’s proxy war against the Ukraine. Closer to home, we’re witnessing the Australian government’s bullying of asylum seekers, the unemployed, the disabled, single mothers, and indigenous people in communities subject to the Intervention.

Bullying is an assertion of power designed to cower, belittle and control its victims. It hurts because it says to them “Your hard-earned human dignity amounts to little to us. You are a reduced form of humanity whose only function is to comply.”

These comments from BasicsCard recipients capture the emotional impact of bullying:

“I just didn’t have the energy to fight them. I went into shock. It made me feel like a piece of shit.”

“When it was pushed on me, I was really angry because they didn’t look at the big picture. They didn’t look at who I am.” (1)

There are bullies in every school yard. There are bullies amongst states – especially well-armed ones. States so frequently bully and intimidate their own citizens that it should probably be a useful addition to Weber’s definition of a state “The monopoly on the use of force and the default use of threats to control their subjects’ behaviour.” Just now we have an outbreak of politicians and academics advocating the use of threats to close down overseas surrogacy – a tactic which, I would have thought, had already failed.

Human beings respond viscerally to being bullied. It causes an instant, powerful immune response. It makes us resist. Some of us push back immediately, some bide their time, but every bullied person is profoundly motivated to restore their lost dignity.

Our capacity for resistance is one of the glories of human nature – the ability to push back against the bully to recover our threatened identity, optimism and hope. It explains human progress: how, generation after generation, the human race stumbles forward and slowly betters itself. It also explains every civil war and every liberation struggle.

Inexplicably, the science of psychology has almost completely avoided studying either resistance or dignity. However there’s still enough experimental and observational evidence to answer a few important FAQs.

Does bullying work?

Can bullying, as the bullies intend, achieve the goal of humbling and controlling the intended victims?

In the short term most intended victims will probably pull their heads in, feign compliance, or run away. But not for long, because the bullied have very strong motivations to push back.

To understand why the bullied don’t just hunker down and comply, it’s important to appreciate that dignity is indispensible for the basic functions of life. Without it we become anxious, listless, and depressed or angry. Our immune system works less well. The well-known psychologist Martin Seligman carried out seminal research on learned helplessness in the 1970s. His experiments with dogs found that, when unable to avoid unescapable shocks, most simply gave up trying to avoid them. (Significantly, though, around 30% of animal subjects simply could not be cowed.)

It appears that dignity, hope, identity and health are all wrapped together and indispensible for a healthy life. That makes humans into highly motivated, sustained resisters against those who would reduce their dignity.

The result is a fatal asymmetry between bullies and victims – one that’s ultimately fatal for the bullies. The asymmetry concerns endurance.

Because dignity can never afford to give up, resistance lasts for as long as it takes for dignity to be restored. It is amazingly tireless, patient and enduring. The Vietnamese struggle against colonialism took 30 years. The anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa took over 40 years.

Bullying also brings out the magnificence of human ingenuity. Because the self is threatened, victims often think about practically nothing else except ways to undermine, circumvent, or punish their bullies. Because they’re on the job full time, they tend to be smarter than the bullies who are so often scrambling to keep up.

In the case of BasicsCard, for example, there’s evidence that gamblers resisted by changing the currency of gambling from cash to food, clothing, and the BasicsCard itself (2). (We may think that gambling is a unhealthy pastime, but that’s not the point. Humans are motivated to resist all threats to their liberties, whether the liberty is healthy or not.)

The tireless, ingenious character of resistance means that it always, always, eventually wins because the policies of states and institutions are less enduring. Their victims do not go away – they are still resisting when the bullies are old and grey, when they’ve lost the election, when their politics has crumbled.

Bullying may provide an immediate rush of power and omnipotence for the bullies. The problem is, it puts them in a co-dependent relationship with their victims. More and more of their time, and treasure, and reputation, and political capital, will go into controlling the bullied. They may end up finding, like many regimes, that it’s just about all they do.

In the end, bullies and bullied can find themselves in a mutually destructive co-dependent relationship, like that between the Gazans and Israelis, or between poor African-American neighbourhoods and city police forces.

Is being bullied good for the victims?

It seems an absurd question, but it’s clearly the theory behind many attempts at social engineering, notably from the conservative side of politics. Back in 2002 federal employment minister Mal Brough was honest enough to admit the government’s policy for the long term unemployed was “embuggerance”, a military term for making someone’s life a misery. Making the life of the unemployed impossible has since emerged as a core strategy behind the employment programs of both sides of politics. Forcing a young person to apply (and then be rejected) for 40 jobs a month, every month, until they find a job, when they are at the most emotionally insecure time of their lives, is surely one of the most diabolical humiliations ever conceived by Australian politics. The Intervention’s removal of what little autonomy was still possessed by indigenous people in the Northern Territory is another.

But is this kind of bullying good for the unemployed, or for indigenous people? Does it get them busy for a positive purpose?

The effect of “fear appeals” in advertising is an analogous phenomenon that’s been well studied by psychologists. The consensus is, in fact, that fear can be quite motivating. Fear arouses the emotions and focuses attention. The bigger the fear, the higher the motivation. But whether that motivation is directed towards hyperdefensiveness or towards positive action depends entirely on another factor: whether the subjects have the confidence to carry out the desired action. If the desired action is complicated, challenging, unpredictable, or itself threatening, then the prefered response is likely to be avoidance or resistance.

Bullying, too, causes the same motivation to resist, or hyper-resist. But more sharply so, since it is people’s identity that’s threatened. Ultimately it’s a positive thing that the bullied become so highly motivated. The downside is that they can easily end up spending much of their time doing things that are unproductive…like petty burglary to obtain spending money, or futilely shooting rockets across the border into southern Israel. These activities require a lot of motivation, but they don’t really help. If your unchecked hurt and rage embed you into a 24/7 culture of resistance, that’s probably a bad thing. You might find that you’re effectively self-harming: doing the bullies’ job for them.

So, no, being bullied isn’t really good for you.

Are there alternatives to bullying?

This too seems like a ridiculous question, but the stark behaviours we see in the news suggest that many power holders may never have contemplated alternatives.

First, is there an alternative to endemic social conflict, such as we see between Gaza and Israel?

Yes, dear friends, that is what justice was invented for.

Justice means putting into practice the principles of natural justice (the rule against bias, and the right to a fair hearing). And it means establishing institutions that act as neutral umpires in conflict situations. Hence we have independent judiciaries, commissions of inquiry, and ICAC.

Incidentally, institutions that create fairness do more than reduce conflict. They’re also the basis of national prosperity. Acemoglu and Robinson in their book Why Nations Fail argue persuasively that there is just one cause for the prosperity of nations: “institutions, institutions, institutions.” Nations whose institutions are captured by economic elites and converted into vehicles for enriching the few signal to the population that there is little point in investing their own energy in betterment. Those nations lose their prosperity.

Populations that resist self-aggrandising elites, and instead build and care for pro-fairness institutions, are those whose economies prosper. (It’s interesting how many historic dimensions there are to resistance!)

Second, what if you want to persuade people to do things that are good for them and avoid doing things that are damaging?

Forty years of research into human motivation and behaviour tell us that one factor above all others determines people’s choices and actions: self-efficacy.

Self-efficacy means that someone has the confidence that, if they invest their energy, time and reputation, they’ll get results they desire, with a minimum of risk and uncertainty. What matters is not making bad actions hard and unpleasant. It turns out that doesn’t work at all. It’s about making good actions easy, simple and more certain.

So, for young Gazans to act for peace they need a pathway to dignity that’s easier and more certain than building rockets.

And if long term unemployed Australians are to find jobs they need positive help to build their self-efficacy, as well as jobs that are actually available (just what a recent study by Anglicare concluded).

So, dear bullies, these are some things you should know: bullying is bad for you, just as it’s bad for your victims, and you’ll lose in the end. And if, perchance, you want to stop being a bully, you need to develop a commitment to fairness and start building an environment where other people can realise their hopes.


(1) Source: Equality Rights Alliance (ERA) (2011) ‘Women’s experience of income management in the Northern Territory’. Canberra: ERA.

(2) Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaHCSIA), op. cit. (see ref. 38) p.48; and ORIMA Research (2010) ‘Evaluation of the child protection scheme of income management and voluntary income management measures in Western Australia’, p.204.