“Empathy Gap” Hinders Effectiveness of Bullying Prevention Programs

Over the past several years, and especially in the past six months, schools nationwide have moved to fight bullying in their hallways and classrooms. Study after study shows that being victimized by a bully can be psychologically devastating. Bullying victims can develop long term anxiety, depression, low self esteem, and social avoidance that escalate during adolescence and become lifelong struggles in adulthood. Therapy and counseling are important interventions, but it’s important that they be implemented early; the longer bullying goes on unreported, the less likely this is to happen. Bullying perpetrators are also likely to struggle emotionally, and are equally at risk for substance abuse and depression as their victims.

The best school-based anti-bullying campaigns address multiple aspects of the bullying dynamic: they emphasize prevention by promoting positive and supportive social interactions; they encourage peer reporting of inappropriate behavior; they provide comprehensive support for bullying victims; and they follow through on both punitive measures and counseling for bullying perpetrators. Already, some programs that seek to nip malicious behavior in the bud have been successful, but according to research from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, there is one major deterrent to school-based anti-bullying campaigns’ success: they call it the “empathy gap.”

According to the Kellogg School’s study, even with the facts about bullying, depression, and therapy in front of them, people don’t appreciate the painfulness of bullying if they haven’t experienced social suffering on a personal level. This gap in empathy impacts how teachers and administrators respond to “socially distressing events,” which impacts the support and punishment given to victims and perpetrators, respectively. Despite teachers’ best intentions, if they can’t relate to their students’ experiences they are less effective at meeting students’ needs. Solid programming alone won’t prevent and address bullying if the human factor prevents those programs from being effectively implemented. The good news is that fostering empathy is not as difficult as one might imagine. In the study, even being left out while playing a computerized game can increase a teacher’s sensitivity to social exclusion.

© Copyright 2011 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Liz

    Liz

    January 12th, 2011 at 12:38 PM

    Well, it is true that unless the same thing has happened to you, you cannot really relate to the pain or sorrow that someone else is going through. But all this comes into the picture after the bullying has occurrd, isn’t it?
    And if I remember it right-prevention is better than cure!!!

  • Nate

    Nate

    January 13th, 2011 at 3:14 AM

    This may be true.But what I want to know is-Who wouldn’t feel sorry for a little kid who is being bullied?

    It will create empathy in any person,more so for teachers, who are with kids all day long…

  • Robyn

    Robyn

    January 13th, 2011 at 7:48 AM

    I will agree that if you have not been in those shoes then it may be hard to imagine the pain that someone who is being bullied would feel. But come on. In many cases all you have to do is look at the faces of those who are having to face down bullies and you would have to be dumb not to realize the pain that is going on beneath the surface. No one should have to deal with this kind of harshness that is being directed toward them, and the more we do to recognize this then perhaps the better chance we will have to stop the behavior from happening.

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