“Why do we reward bullies?”

In a New York Times op-ed piece from earlier this year, Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute (a conservative think tank), ponders why our society all too often rewards bullies for their behavior. He offers three reasons:

First, people tend to be selective ethicists. The other side’s bully is a horrible person; your side’s bully is a “truth teller.” Indeed, we sometimes even flip the script and say our bully is actually a victim who is simply fighting back against even bigger bullies.


Second, people are, paradoxically, attracted to bullies. In her book “The Allure of Toxic Leaders,” the social scientist Jean Lipman-Blumen shows that people complain about political dictators and tyrannical executives yet nearly always remain loyal out of a primordial admiration for power and need for security in an uncertain world.


The third explanation is simple acquiescence. In a famous study published in 1999 in the Journal of Adolescence, three psychologists investigated how children act when they witness an act of bullying. Hundreds of schoolchildren were videotaped on the playground, and nearly 200 bullying incidents were recorded. . . . And how did the peers react? Twenty-one percent joined the bully, while 25 percent defended the victim. The rest — 54 percent — watched the incident passively, neither joining in nor defending the victim.

Brooks’s perspectives on bullying were shaped by his experiences performing with a professional symphony orchestra during his twenties. He calls orchestra conductors “notorious tyrants, cruel and demanding” who “turn players against one another, prey on weakness, destroy confidence.”

One of the most telling aspects of this op-ed piece is how the experience of being bullied can stick with people for decades. Brooks in his mid-fifties. He is a regular contributor of op-ed pieces to the New York Times. His editorial voice tends to be deliberate and pointed, rather than overtly emotional. Accordingly, his sharp criticisms about orchestra conductors show, in hard relief, the lasting impact of bullying.

Brooks suggests that standing up to bullies is the best way to curb their power and ability to abuse others. He may be right in some instances, but there are plenty of stories where taking on bullies has backfired badly. There is no magic response; power dynamics and surrounding circumstances all matter. What we need are more people who oppose bullying and abusive leaders, thereby creating a broader and deeper cultural norm that does not tolerate such mistreatment as a matter of course.


Related posts

Toxic workplace cultures and bullying at work (2018)

Creating a society grounded in human dignity (2018)


4 responses

  1. Based on much observation and experience, I would wager that about half the population in general would not only allow a bully or despot to get away with their actions, they would actively participate. Bullies are persuasive in constantly pointing out their targets flaws so that bystanders are encouraged to join in and avoid the hotseat themselves.

    I saw an example of this recently on NextDoor; the biggest motormouth on the site was getting cheers and no push back when gaslighting other users and advocating illegal cruel measures to solve neighborhood nuisance issues. This went on for months.

    Then a new member brought him down by pointing out the irrational and hypocritical nature of his posts using facts and figures. The bully was so unused to being challenged, he had a meltdown and threatened the new member. That got him kicked off the site. A nice comeuppance that doesnt happen often enough to curb brutish behavior.

  2. Workplace bullies are “rewarded” by the very fact that few people take them on. And when they do push back, or stand up for themselves – many times they become either a new target … or .. .the management team “punishes” them for stepping forward and shining a light on the widespread issue of workplace bullying and lack of civility. After all, Human Resources is a department that is paid by the company – and whose mission is to support the company. Victims (and witnesses) to workplace incivility and bullying are forced to choose between “plan B” (leaving the department or company, or risking careers by reporting the issues and getting blackballed, downsized, etc. People don’t allow a bully, they suffer at the risk of a bully and a workplace that doesn’t address it.

    • This has been my experience as well. In one case, the bully/boss was promoted (even after being sued for hostile work place), and not one of us stayed (although we had been ther 10 years or more then she). Though our agency closed, she is still
      In her position. One woman gave up get nursing career, several of us occasionally gave symptoms of PTSD. Sadly, this is a very frequent and common story…

  3. This is an interesting topic, which I go into on my site. As a child, I wanted to play, as most do, but I was timid much of the time, except with my sister. I do remember, however, some of our heated arguments and how she would instigate most. I do remember the bullies in school and neighborhoods. I started kindergarten younger than the others, and I was physically a frail child, also smaller than most, and this was not a great formula for being chosen for p.e. teams and being left alone. There were times when I turned into the bully, but I didn’t know why, and it troubled me, but I’ll tell you how I found out. In one instance, I stepped on a helpless bird, killing it, then being aghast at what I did, wondering why I did it. In another situation, I verbally tore into another for wanting to join our group because I saw this person as not being “up to our standards.” But also, when a bully had charged me, running at me to get a reaction, I did the same to another, then realizing it wasn’t really my idea. Why did I do that? I copied another’s behavior. I was becoming the bully. I realized how wrong that was. But also, I realized that I wasn’t being myself and that to be a bully, be on top, I would have to take on an identity that wasn’t truly me. You see, bullies aren’t themselves. They have become what they hated or reacted to in fear.

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