On November 4 of 2015 Faisal Mohammad walked into his 8 AM class at the University of California at Merced and attacked his fellow students using a long-bladed hunting knife. Described by his roommate as very socially withdrawn, a document found during the investigation suggested he was seeking revenge for being excluded from a study group. Christopher Harper-Mercer, a student at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, shot and killed his professor and 8 fellow students in his English class on October 1, 2015. Harper-Mercer associated with no one at his school, and was described as an isolate who was frustrated by his inability to connect with others. Elliott Rodger, who shot and killed six people near the campus of the University of California at Santa Barbara in 2014, left behind a message that explained, “All I ever wanted was to fit in and live a happy life amongst humanity, but I was cast out and rejected, forced to endure an existence of loneliness and insignificance” (New York Times, 2014).
How could these students turn against their fellow classmates and teachers with such monstrous hostility? There is no simple answer to this question, for such horrific actions spring from a complex of interrelated psychological and interpersonal factors. However, when Mark Leary and his colleagues examined 15 cases of post-1995 shootings in schools in the U.S. they found that these terrible acts of violence were tied together by a common thread: rejection. In most cases the aggressors were individuals who did not belong to any groups or take part in common social activities. They were often described as loners who were not able to sustain any intimate or friendship relations.
Social isolation was a defining condition in the life of Seung Hui Cho, the 23-year-old senior at Virginia Tech, who killed 32 people and wounded 17 others before committing suicide: “Cho lived a life of quiet solitude, extreme quiet and solitude. For all of his 23 years of life the most frequent observation made by anyone about him was that Seung Hui Cho had absolutely no social life. During all of his school years he had no real friends. He had no interest in being with others. In fact, he shied away from other people and seemed to prefer his own company to the company of others” (Dupue, 2007, p. N-3).
Some shooters, such as Cho, were never mistreated by other people, yet they still felt rejected and isolated. In other instances, however, they had been ostracized by others at their schools and were the target of teasing, ridicule, and bullying. These individuals usually chose their targets deliberately, seeking revenge against those who had excluded them. They did not try to blame their behavior on psychological problems, their parents, the media, or the influence of their friends. Nearly all claimed that they had been pushed into violence by a specific group of people who excluded them. Exclusion, by itself, is not associated with behavioral problems in adolescents, but those who are isolated and report “problematic peer encounters” are at risk for a variety of negative outcomes (Kreager, 2004).
Ostracism was not the sole cause of these incidents. In nearly all cases aggressors had a history of psychological problems, although the severity of their troubles was often unrecognized. They were also often preoccupied with violence and death, and were interested in guns and weapons in general. Exclusion, however, was a key social factor in most cases. The harm that these individuals have wrought cannot be undone, but their actions serve as a reminder that our desire to join with others in groups can, when thwarted, unbalance the mind.
Dupue, R. L. (2007). A theoretical profile of Seung Hui Cho: From the perspective of a forensic behavioral scientist. In Mass shootings at Virginia Tech: Report of the review panel. Retrieved from http://www.governor.virginia.gov
Kreager, D. (2004). Strangers in the halls: Isolation and delinquency in school networks. Social Forces, 83, 351–390.
Leary, M. R., Kowalski, R. M., Smith, L., & Phillips, S. (2003). Teasing, rejection, and violence: Case studies of the school shootings. Aggressive Behavior, 29, 202–214.
Image courtesy of Gualberto107 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Each day, as Erick boards the bus, Jonathan berates him, making fun of his hair and clothes. No one will sit with Erick for fear of being drawn into the abuse. Donzella and her friends deliberately circulate nasty rumors about Carol, who was once part of the Donzella clique but who is now considered an outcast. Each day at recess, Greg finds Albert on the playground and, after teasing him, pushes him up against the school wall and punches him. Francine has no idea why everyone leaves her alone at work–others gather together for lunch and exchange small talk regularly during the workday, but Francine is always left out. When Martin joins the team he suffers through a series of ritualistic induction pranks, but one of the veteran players’ actions go beyond pranking, for he uses racial insults and threats of physical violence.
Bullying is a form of coercive interpersonal influence. It involves deliberately inflicting injury or discomfort on another person repeatedly through physical contact, verbal abuse, exclusion, or other negative actions. Both males and females bully, but they tend to do so in different ways: women tend to be more relationally aggressive, for they use gossip, criticism, and exclusion against their victims. Men tend to be physically aggressive when they can be, or verbally aggressive when they cannot resort to violence. Bullying, as Dan Olweus (1997) noted, signals a marked imbalance in the power relationship between the bully and his or her victim. The victim of abuse “has difficulty in defending himself or herself and is somewhat helpless against” the bully (p. 216). Bullying, then, is not retaliation between parties in a dispute or conflict, but the mistreatment of a less powerful person by someone with power. Bullying was once considered a phase that children pass through on their way to adulthood, but instances of bullying escalating into violence and catastrophic reactions of victims to bullying have caused a shift in this view. Bullying is not “child’s play” but aggression—a form of peer abuse. Bullying is common in school settings, but it also occurs in military, business, and professional organizations (Geffner et al., 2004).
Bullying is also a group behavior. Victims are sometimes isolated and friendless; children abandoned to their fate by the rest of the school or the single worker who always eats lunch alone. But in many cases, groups of targets are abused by groups of bullies. Similarly, although bullies are often thought to be poorly adjusted individuals who are expressing anger by picking on those who cannot defend themselves, bullies are often relatively popular members of the group. In schools, for example, they often are involved in sports (for the boys) and considered attractive and more mature (for the girls), and are known as school leaders and trend setters (Vaillancourt, Hymel, & McDougall, 2003). Yet, they tend to be disliked, as most condemn the way they treat other people of lower status in the group. Bullying also involves more than just the bully and the victim, as others are drawn into the harmful bully–victim exchange. Some take the role of henchmen or facilitators; they do not initiate the abuse, but they take an active part once the bullying event has begun. Others encourage bullies or signal support by smiling and laughing. Others impassively watch the interaction without speaking, and a few members of the bystander group may intercede on behalf of the victim, either directly or by seeking help from officials or authorities (O’Connell, Pepler, & Craig, 1999; Olweus, 2000).
Because bullying is rooted in both power dynamics and group dynamics, experts recommend group-level interventions for preventing peer abuse. Olweus’s (1997) pioneering program stressed restructuring the role of teachers in schools to increase their control over social behavior as well as instruction. Olweus recommended creating a school atmosphere that is warm and supportive, but also closely monitored by authorities who consistently enforce anti-bullying norms. These norms must be supported through the dissemination of information about bully–victim problems and by discussing expectations with students in classes and schoolwide assemblies. Victims of bullying can also be supported through the development of buddy systems, cooperative learning activities, and the use of peer-conflict mediation programs. Families, too, can be involved in reducing bullying by monitoring children’s behavior closely and by setting standards for appropriate conduct (Giannetti & Sagarese, 2001; Horne, Stoddard, & Bell, 2007).
A Specific Case of Bullying
The issue of bullying is currently in the news (November, 2013) because of the Dolphins-NFL-Martin-Incognito Controversy. In case you have been distracted by the Ms. Universe pageant (Ms. Venezuela won), the initial public offering of Twitter on the New York Stock Exchange (closed at $45 a share), or the rising death toll of the Typhoon Haiyan in Philippines, you may not know that the calm of the 9th week of the National Football League season was interrupted by a storm of controversy when second-year Miami Dolphin offensive lineman Jonathan Martin abruptly left the team. The accusations, innuendo, and conflicting interpretations make the recent dirt-slinging Virginia governor’s race seem like a good-natured disagreement between longtime friends. Jonathan Martin is too soft to play in the NFL. Richie Incognito has always been a mean-spirited bully. The Dolphin’s management is blame. The things that happened in the Dolphin locker room reflect the culture of this kind of group. Incognito is a racist. Martin turned his back on his team. Incognito and Martin were besties who became beasties. You name it, someone believes it.
Time will be needed to gain a clear picture of what triggered Martin’s decision, but at present it appears that Martin, as a new player in the NFL, was the target of a series of hazing-like actions. One player on the team, Richie Incognito, was the prime instigator of these actions. In addition to regular harassment on the field and in the locker room, Incognito, who is an Anglo-American, sent Martin texts and tweets laced with racial epithets and threats of violence (Martin is of African-American ancestry).
Some resources on the issue:
Jonathan Martin, Richie Incognito, Bullying, And You by Ramin Rezvani: Rezvani carefully examines the psychology of the victim of bullying, identifying reasons why Martin tolerated to some extent Incognito’s taunting and derision.
Le Monde en face : Harcèlement à l’école – France 5 (BA): This video has been released in France, which is mounting a campaign against bullying in schools.
Lawsuit Could Provide Martin Payday: Harassment is illegal in the workplace, and the Miami Dolphin locker was a workplace. “Lawyers will come” is a given (see, too, this link).
Incognito and Martin: An Insider’s Story by Lydon Murtha: Murtha provides one player’s perspective—a player who suggests that the problem between Martin and Incognito was a part of the tendency for organizations to socialized new players.
Social scientists of every ilk (from anthropologists to sociologists) since the dawn of the social sciences have been drawing distinctions between societies that were more group-focused and those that are more individualistic. From Durkheim we have the distinction between organic (individualistic) and mechanical solidarity (groupy). Tonnies spoke of Gemeinschaft (community-focused) and Gesellschaft (dyadic relationships of urban societies). Cooley compared the world dominated by primary groups and the new world populated primarily by secondary groups. And many mention de Tocqueville’s very early use of the word individualism (although he was not the first, see Arieli, 1964). In his Democracy in America Tocqueville (who was not a social scientist, by the way, because there weren’t any social scientists in 1830s), he used the word to describe American society, worrying that perhaps the focus on the individual that was marked in America and in its founding philosophy would cause the society t become unstable. All these writers, and those who followed them, use individualism and collectivism any which way they please, and as a result the concepts have become completely fuzzified.
For the last fifty years no pains have been spared to convince the inhabitants of the United States that they are the only religious, enlightened, and free people. They perceive that, for the present, their own democratic institutions prosper, while those of other countries fail; hence, they conceive a high opinion of their superiority, and are not very remote from believing themselves to be a distinct species of mankind.”
—Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America
Psychologists have not exactly done much to help unmuddy the conceptual waters. When Geert Hofstede burst on the scene with a fist-full of surveys completed by diligent IBM employees working in countries scattter around the globe, he was careful to disentagle individualism (IDV) from related cultural differences, such as “power distance” and “masculinity.” Cross-cultural psychologists took up the theme and applied it diligently–although primarily to explain why Japanese people are different from U.S. people–before personality psychologists decided that this dimension may apply not only to cultures, but to people within the cultures. So, the theory became a multi-level one, with differences in the definition of the concept when it is used at a societal level than when it is used at an individual level (see, for example, Fischer, Vauclair, Fontaine, Schwartz, 2010).
The result of all this interest in the concept is that many variations in the definition and measurement of individualism and collectivism have emerged, with each one providing a bit different perspective on these concepts. For example:
Hofstede: “Individualism is the opposite of Collectivism. Individualism stands for a society in which the ties between individuals are loose: a person is expected to look after himself or herself and his or her immediate family only. Collectivism stands for a society in which people from birth onwards are integrated into strong, cohesive in-groups, which continue to protect them throughout their lifetime in exchange for unquestioning loyalty.” (Hofstede, Hofstede, Minkov, & Vinken, 2008, pp. 7-8). He measures this dimension with these four items: “Please think of an ideal job, disregarding your present job, if you have one. In choosing an ideal job, how important would it be to you to (M1) have sufficient time for your personal or home life (individualistic), (M4) have security of employment (collective), (m6), do work that is interesting (individualistic), and (M9) have a job respected by your family and friends (collective).
Gaines, Marelich, Bledsoe, Steers, Henderson, and many more (1998) decide to remove family focus from individualism and collectivism, for good reason. Most of the early analyses of individualism actually included a focus on family in the concept, but more recent researchers have assumed that (a) family = group and (b) Asian cultures are collectivistic and very family focused so family suggests collectivism. Gaines et al. measure individualism with items such as “These days, the only person you can depend upon is yourself” and “I place personal freedom above all other values,” collectivism with items such as”I consider myself a team player” and “I believe in the motto, “United We Stand, Divided We Fall,” and familism with “My family always is there for me in time of need” and “I cannot imagine what I would do without my family.”
Triandis’s measure is very well-known, although he decided that it is important to split I/C into Vertical and Horizontal. His four scales include: Horizontal individualism (1. I’d rather depend on myself than others. 3. I often do “my own thing.”), Vertical individualism (1. It is important that I do my job better than others. 2. Winning is everything.), Horizontal collectivism (1. If a coworker gets a prize, I would feel proud. 4. I feel good when I cooperate with others.), and Vertical collectivism (1. Parents and children must stay together as much as possible. 4. It is important to me that I respect the decisions made by my groups.).
The Schwartz value scale is not exactly a measure of individualism/collectivism, but it predicts it fairly well (see Fisher et al., 2010). And, the 10 values that Schwartz has been studying can be arranged along 2 dimensions, that are conceptually reminiscent of individualism and collectivism. Oishi and his colleagues (1998) explored the relationship between the Schwartz Values and Individualism/Collectivism, as measured by Triandis’s two dimensional approach that folds power and hierarchy into the mix. They found that Individualism was positively correlated significantly with power and achievement, but negatively with self-direction, universalism, and benevolence. Collectivism, in contrast, was correlated positively with tradition, conformity, and security, but negatively with self-direction, stimulation, hedonism, and power. Self-direction was negatively correlated with both.
Oyserman, Coon, and Kemmelmeier, 2002, to bring some order to the chaos, tracked down no fewer than 27 (!) individualism/collectivism scales and examined their content, and checked to see how well they predicted both societal level and person-level outcomes. They identified 7 repeated themes in their analysis of individualism items, and 8 for collectivism. For Collectivism, virtually all of the scales included an item pertaining to duty to the group and relatedness to others. They also found that at least half of the scales included items related to relying on other people when making decisions, concern for maintaining group harmony, and preference for working with others in groups rather than alone. Other, less frequently noted, elements are shown in the table and include belonging, context, and hierarchy). Individualism, in contrast, was a more mixed bag. Nearly all included an item that addressed freedom, self-sufficiency, personal independence. However, no other themes appeared in more than half of the scales. The next most popular themes, mentioned in only a third, were personal achievement and self-knowledge. Competition was noted in only 15% of the individualism scales, for some obscure reason. Theoretically, competition is stressed in most analyses of individualism, and was one of three scales used by Chen and West in their 2008 measure (along with independent and uniqueness. Chen and West’s scale is relatively unique on the collectivism side, for it includes considering the implications of one’s decision for others, sharing positive outcomes with others, and avoiding doing embarrassing things so that others are not humiliated.
But back to Oyserman, Coon, and Kemmelmeier. They also examined the content of individualism and collectivism through a review of previous studies that have examined the relationship between I and C and various kinds of outcomes. This research suggests that differences in individualism and collectivism do not predict how many groups one belongs to, but these variables do predict the importance of groups for members. Those who are individualistic interact with more groups, feel they can leave groups and join others more easily, and are more at ease with strangers than collectivists. Collectivists, as theory suggests, favoring the ingroup over the outgroup, prefer equality when distributing resources, and they are more likely to accommodate ingroup members. In organizational and work contexts those who are low in collectivism prefer to work alone and are more likely to perform solitary tasks more effectively. Studies of communication suggests individualism predicts an emphasis on direct, clear communication, where collectivism is associated with indirect communication that takes into account the other person’s feelings.