Reducing Tolerance for Bullying Through Social Influence

Harassment is an ever-increasing problem in middle and high schools. Students are victimized through verbal, physical, and emotional acts of abuse. Harassment is based on factors that range from the type of clothing a student wears to his or her ethnicity, race, or sexual orientation. Regardless of the circumstances that surround harassment, stopping it has become one of the primary goals of educators in recent years. Interventions have been devised to promote tolerance and encourage acceptance. They have produced minimal results, however. Elizabeth Levy Paluck of the Department of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton University theorized that perhaps approaching this problem with a focus on social norms would be more effective.

Societal groups develop socially acceptable beliefs that influence every member of the group. The same is true in high schools. Students tend to accept negative behavior if their peers, especially influential peers, accept and endorse it too. Paluck wanted to see if students would be more likely to admonish bullying through social avenues than through administrative efforts. For her study, Paluck recruited a number of high school students to be social referents conveying their intolerance for bullying. The referents and the rest of the school’s students attended an assembly discouraging bullying at the beginning of the year, and were repeatedly reminded about the message for the remainder of the school year. The referents were instructed to continually relay the anti-bullying message and encouraged other students to purchase wrist bands supporting their cause.

At the end of the year, Paluck evaluated the climate of the school and found that the students who came in repeated social contact with the referents had much less tolerance for bullying behavior and discrimination than those who did not. Specifically, it was not the students who shared classes, but rather those who saw the referents socially and interacted with them outside of the academic arena, that were more heavily influenced by their anti-bullying beliefs. Additionally, the social referents had a much more significant impact on creating an anti-bullying climate than the assembly did. In this era of ever-increasing avenues of bullying, such as social media and text messaging, changing attitudes in the swiftest way possible is imperative. “To shift an entire school’s normative climate and pattern of behavior, more social referents may need to demonstrate behavioral changes such as those prompted by the intervention program,” Paluck said.

Paluck, E. L., Shepherd, H. (2012). The salience of social referents: A field experiment on collective norms and harassment behavior in a school social network. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0030015

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  • daphne


    October 13th, 2012 at 12:01 AM

    as far as I have observed,the bullies are usually some of the most famous kids at school.why kids put a bully on high pedestal I will never understand.its just like countries today isn’t it.the leaders are often corrupt and are no good but they are still right up there,as our leaders.and as long as a revolution does not take place it will remain this way for a long time to come.

  • Charles


    October 13th, 2012 at 5:02 AM

    making students own up to their actions nad face those who are very well aware of the harmful actions that they are inflicting upon others could be the one thing that we have not tried so much yet that could help slow down this crisis of bullying that we have been facing lately. I know that if I was this age and doing something that I knew was intentionally hurtful to another person, I might think twice about doing it to them again if I knoew that someone was watching and was well aware of what I had been doing to hurt someone else. I think that this would help more than you know especially when the bullies are younger and are still heavily influenced by what others may think about them.

  • Lolly r

    Lolly r

    October 13th, 2012 at 9:30 AM

    It keeps them accountable and aware of how much their actions could be helping others. Keeping the referrants on board with the program might be a challenge if they are not 100% committed to the cause but with the right student body and the continuing repetition of the message I can see how this could be a success.

  • don ridge

    don ridge

    October 13th, 2012 at 1:53 PM

    The concept of bullying is definitely one where it takes an entire village to cause any kind of real healing to take place. This can’t be something where you have one or two people involved- this literally has to be something that everyone gets behind and puts forth the effort to end. This means getting into uncomfortable situations where you may not otherwise step up and step in, or having to make a hard decision to move away from friends to do the right thing for someone whom you may not know as well. So thishas to be antire community change kind of thing to have the greatest effect and impact on the bullies themselves.

  • BK


    October 13th, 2012 at 11:52 PM

    Bullies r generally cowards who pick lonely n introvert people as victims. ever seen an extrovert being bullied? I guess not. they also choose someone who they know is not gonna speak out against them. in short they look for a soft target. if all others form a community and stand against them they wil have no one to bully n the problem could well b buried.

  • Galen.J


    October 14th, 2012 at 7:58 AM

    When I find myself stopping in my tracks to help someone I ask myself what I would have wished for if I were in the same place. Would I want someone else to come to my help? Then I can move ahead more easily and without hesitation. I just hope more people develop the habit of helping others because really, when you are helping someone you are also helping yourself in unseen ways. You never know when or how that could come back to your aid at a later time!

  • Constance


    October 15th, 2012 at 4:16 AM

    Reducing the TOLERANCE for bullying is entirely different from reducing bullying as a whole, don’t yoy think? I find that with all of thr publicity surrounding so many of these bullying cases that the tolerance for this kind of bahvior is going down, for sure. But the actual act of bullying, I am not too sure about. I just think that many bullies have gotten a little wiser. And what I mean by that is not that they have suddenly become the school geniuses, but they have become sneakier, more intricate with their actions. This kind of bullying today goes way beyond pushing and shoving on the playground. Today’s bully acts can be as anonymous as someone wants them to be which makes it even harder to track down the realcriminals many times.

  • Darla


    October 15th, 2012 at 11:25 AM

    You know one area I think that we need to and can do better is making the victim feel safe to report what is going on with him and safe in knowing that there is someone eho will take this seriously. Victims have too many times been told to brush it off, it’s just words, no big deal, but for many it is a super big deal that can leave them with lasting pain and emotional damage. Being someone who will stand up for them when they can’t stand up for themselves is too important to not do.

  • D.R


    October 15th, 2012 at 11:39 AM

    Bullies cant stand a collective force for a minute I tell ya! They want victims that are alone and those that will not put up a fight. They cannot handle strong minded people.And the fact that they can identify and attack weak people is their advantage. Now if we can neutralize that advantage then they really do not have much to fight with!

  • Liza


    October 16th, 2012 at 11:13 AM

    Simply being able to have an open and honest national conversation about this issue is something that I find to be quite meaningful and worthwhile. If we don’t talk about it then we have no hopes to fix it. And something is definitely broken to have this large of a national interest in the topic. I think that as a citizenry we have finally been able to admit that bullying does nothing to help any of us get ahead in the world and that we are only being successful in holding one another back by behaving this way toward our fellow man. It is long past time for a change and a recognition that bullying inflicts harm on victims who very often have no way to retaliate. That is not how I want anyone to have to live. I happen to think that we were all put on this Earth to do far better than that for one another.

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