In the movie Powder (1995), a hunter is cured of his desire to kill for fun by a bodhisattva-like boy with magical powers: Jeremy Reed (nicknamed “Powder”). As a thuggish small-town cop discovers, much to his chagrin, Powder can quite literally make you feel another creature’s pain. If the film has an overarching message, it’s that bullies are bullies because they lack empathy and self-esteem.
This was the received wisdom in the 1990s, and it made sense to me at the time. But it’s been disproved so many times since then that, in my experience, the only people who still subscribe to this myth are aging hippies and out-of-touch babyboomers running high-school anti-bullying campaigns. Numerous studies have demonstrated that most bullies have higher than average self-esteem. What’s worse, perhaps, is that Zimbardo and others now think that raising a bully’s self-esteem may make him more of a bully, not less.
Although I must confess that I still find this quite counter-intuitive, it now seems that the notion that bullies are bullies because they lack empathy is being disproved in the 2010s just as thoroughly as the notion that bullies are bullies because they lack self-esteem was in the first decade of the twenty-first century. As Mary Lamia put it in Psychology Today: “Typically, we misinform children that bullies behave in this way because they have low self-esteem, which doesn’t make much sense to kids since bullies appear confident, arrogant, and self-assured—and they are. (See my previous blog, Do Bullies Really Have Low Self-esteem?) In addition, children are often told that a bully is unable to empathize; to put himself in your shoes. But this is also untrue. Anyone who is a victim of someone who behaves like a bully knows that bullies have an amazing ability to recognize exactly what is going to hurt, manipulate, or control you. . . . Empathizing with someone and understanding what the other person feels does not necessarily mean that you will respond sympathetically or compassionately. In fact, descriptions of empathy, have included the notion that empathy can be used for destructive purposes.”
Teaching a bully how to be more empathetic, like raising his self-esteem or his IQ, may just help him become a bigger and better bully. Many bullies score high on empathy tests. In fact, they’re good at hurting you because they’re good at imagining what it might be like to be you. Evil, it seems, isn’t always, or even usually, a function of ignorance. What follows, of course, is that Socrates was wrong: education can’t save us.
—John Faithful Hamer
p.s. I highly recommend that you watch Dr. Kwame M. Brown’s response to my piece, wherein he quite rightly suggests that we interpret these research findings cautiously: swinging the pendulum to yet another extreme, yet another mono-causal explanation, is decidedly unwise.