Underestimating Social Suffering?

Bullying on IRFE as of March 5, 2007 (the firs...

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A new study by Kellogg School of Management finds that unless a person can personally empathize with a victim of bullying, they cannot fully understand the depths of pain being experienced by the victim.  Here are some highlights of the article:

According to a new study from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, people fail to understand the consequences of social trauma felt by victims of bullying, teasing, and ostracism. This “empathy gap” can be devastating because it means victims often do not get the support, intervention or advocacy they need.

“Everyone knows that social trauma is unpleasant, but people are often blind to the full severity of these experiences and therefore don’t do enough to protect or intervene when victims suffer,” said Loran Nordgren, assistant professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management. “News stories in recent months centered around bully victims who took their own lives out of desperation and fear, whether harassed physically in school, or emotionally via text message, online or through social networks. To manage against bullying and other forms of social trauma moving forward, it’s only by having a heightened sense of empathy to victims’ true suffering that we can begin to pave the way for reform and new policies.”

To explore their theory–that only by identifying with a victim’s social suffering can one understand its devastating effects–the researchers conducted five experiments that simulated a socially painful event. In experiments one through four, participants were asked to play a computer ball toss game. By using a social exclusion manipulation, the study concluded that those participants who were included in the activity consistently underestimated the severity of social pain compared to excluded participants who had a heightened appreciation of its effects.

Experiment five asked middle school teachers to evaluate policies regarding emotional bullying at school. Those teachers who personally experienced social exclusion had a heightened perception of the pain caused by emotional bullying, which led them to implement punishment for students who bully and more comprehensive treatment for bullied students.

“Statistics show that 25 percent of public schools have reported that bullying occurs among students on a daily or weekly basis(1), and 43 percent of students have experienced some form of cyber bullying(2). While educators and policy makers have developed programs and laws to prevent incidents of bullying, our research suggests this may not be enough,” argues Nordgren. “Only when students, teachers and school administrators partake in exercises or training that simulate a socially painful event, like bullying, can they be truly empathetic to its consequences.”

The full article can be read here.

This study, then, adds to the discussion (at times, debate): do people have to “walk in ones shoes” to fully grasp a victim’s pain; or is “pain pain” and we don’t have to fully experience the same pain in order to empathize with one another?

Personally, I think it depends on the situation.  In this case, in dealing with school bullying, regardless if a teacher (or school official) has faced personal bullying themselves or not, teachers need to speak out against ALL bullying within their classrooms / schools.  No question.  Does it help if teachers have faced the same experiences as their students?  Sure.  But just because they didn’t, doesn’t give them a “pass” to look the other way, or to not speak up for those being bullied.

What are your thoughts?

For more articles on school bullying, click on the “Bullying” link in the right sidebar.

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2 responses to “Underestimating Social Suffering?

  1. I do think that it helps to know personally what a person went through based on what you went through. However, as you mentioned, it does not stop someone from standing up for someone else.

    • Exactly Dan.

      Sometimes people think, “Well since I don’t know where [so-and-so] is coming from, I can’t help them. I have nothing to offer them.” While I understand their intention behind this statement, if the person is a believer, than they have a lot to offer [so-and-so]: namely, Jesus. God is not asking us – or even looking for us – to solve everyone’s problems. He doesn’t want us to be their savior – HE wants to be their savior, and He is! Instead, I believe God simply asks us to walk beside one another, regardless of the situation, and be a visible presence of Jesus to that person (that group of people). In this regard, any Christian can fulfill this role – no matter their personal background.

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