Analysis of a Bully
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Most of us have had unpleasant encounters with these vile creatures and our main concern is finding a way to rid ourselves of them. The bully is simply a disease and the first thing we do with disease is to obtain a full and proper description of it, one that may guide us and help us in destroying it.
Letís start by asking what the word bully denotes. We generally apply it to someone, usually male, who seems to enjoy hurting and intimidating people. To put it more abstractly, he is a purveyor of evil.
I define evil as anything that diminishes or demoralizes a person. Certainly I would regard anything that diminishes or demoralizes me as evil and simple empathy tells me that others would make the same judgment of anything that diminished or demoralized them.
Here we must make a distinction. We talk about evil and we talk about wrong, but they are not the same thing. Evil refers to what affects the status of a person and wrong refers to something that does not solve a problem correctly. We say that 2+2=5 is wrong but itís not evil; putting a dangerous criminal in a cage is evil but itís not wrong (weíre willing to do evil things to the criminal to prevent him from doing evil things to others). With respect to morality and human behavior, we can use Michael Shermerís definition, which says that wrong is what interferes with and thwarts the survival and flourishing of sentient beings.
So now we need to figure out how the bully can gain pleasure from diminishing and demoralizing other people. How does making people look and feel small benefit the bully? What is he trying to achieve for himself?
The craving for social status is a fundamental human need, analogous to hunger or thirst. We need to achieve a certain level of acceptance within a group of other humans in order to satisfy that craving. And just as extreme hunger will lead people to eat things that they normally wouldnít touch and extreme thirst will compel them to drink liquids that they normally would not bring close to their mouths, so too does extreme craving for social status lead people to do things, evil things, that someone with less of the craving would not do. An extreme and obsessive craving for social status provides the force that drives the bully.
That craving, like extreme hunger and thirst, comes from a critical deficiency. One of our fundamental needs, as gregarious creatures, is to be accepted as a valued member of a desirable social group, a validation of our existence in our society. The lower the social status one has, the more intense the distress they will suffer. Just as hungry people seek food, we all seek to raise our social status to a level that satisfies us.
Most of us can achieve that goal. We understand that our social status is related to our social value, that the benefits that we confer upon members of our social group determine our relative position within the group. That understanding leads us to develop our abilities to enlarge others and to raise their morale. But some few people canít do that.
When a person occupies the lowest social status and feels inadequate to rise above it, desperation sets in. None of us wants to believe that we are unworthy of the favor of others. In the mind of a child, accustomed to people fawning over him, the indifference of others can appear as hostility. If that appearance is not altered and then erased by trusted adults, the child will likely become paranoid, conceiving himself as the center of the world and the focus of universal hostile attention.
That concept is the seed from which vanity will grow like a tumor. He will develop the delusional personality disorder of narcissism. Vain, egotistical, and self-obsessed, he believes that he should be admired and respected merely for existing. He comes to that belief through the self-fulfilling assumption that he is inadequate to do anything that would benefit others and thereby raise his social status. He resents people judging him and finding him unworthy of favor, so he dismisses their judgements by dismissing them as inferior beings who are just jealous of his special status.
As an example for this analysis, consider the behavior of B.T., a composite of all the bullies that Iíve had the displeasure of knowing. We will discover that the basic organizing principle behind his behavior is his assumption that he is the only person in the world who counts for anything and that all other people exist for the sole purpose of pampering his infantile vanity. We will see that his assumption is a way of covering up the knowledge that he is really a useless nobody. In a way we can regard him as mentally retarded.
One factor in B.T.ís hostility toward others is a sense of rejection and resentment of it. It fills him with nihilistic rage that seeks revenge on others, thereby ensuring that they will reject him and the vicious cycle will continue. He develops an overweening narcissism in which he believes that his self-judged superiority makes others relatively worthless, expendable, and justifiably exploitable. It all ties in to the bullyís deficient capacity for empathy, which deficiency he has nurtured as a means of avoiding getting hurt. By focusing entirely on his own feelings and not on the feelings of others, he weakens himself further and the positive-feedback process continues.
He justifies his dismissal of others by conceiving himself as a superior being who deserves the highest social status. To support that conception he will do things that make him appear superior to others in some way. If heís bigger than others, he will use physical violence to drive others into subservience. If heís not big enough, he resorts to deceit to manipulate people to his advantage. If he manages to get himself into a position of authority, he will grant himself special privileges that are denied to others. He judges himself by what he has and not by what he gives.
The sadistic and vindictive parts of his personality drive him to strive for authority over others, by whatever means possible. He wants to be the Great Gatekeeper and Dispenser of Favors in order to possess what he regards as power (i.e. easy dominance over others). Often, when someone asked B.T. for some small favor, he would say, "You owe me an apology." When the person asked for what he had to apologize for, B.T. would reply with, "I think you know," thereby putting the questioner in the position of a supplicant who must guess at what he has done to offend B.T. This coyness that B.T. displays, rather than speaking plainly as an adult would do, is another defense mechanism. He employs it so that people wonít ridicule him for being as weak as he really is.
Dishonesty is one of the fundaments of the bullyís personality. B.T. learned early to lie. Initially he would lie to avoid punishment for his misdeeds, but then he learned to lie to gain favors. When I was in grammar school (5th grade) I once told B.T., who was pretending to be my friend, about a girl I admired. He responded by telling me that she had let him kiss her. It was a lie, of course, but he told it in order to impress me with his superiority to me, to let me know that he could get what I wanted and could not get, thereby (in his mind) winning my respect and admiration. It was a despicable thing for him to do, but thatís not relevant in the bullyís mind: he is concerned solely and entirely with getting what he wants, regardless of what it does to other people, and what we call common decency has nothing to do with the case. It would not have occurred to him to think that I might feel hurt by his boast and he would not have cared if it had.
In order to practice deceit successfully the bully must have no trace of what we call conscience (related to what Freud called the superego). He must utter his lies confidently, with no trace of guilt to betray him. To those of us who have developed a conscience that seems impossible, because when we lie thereís always a bit of hesitation. But the bully is doing exactly what children do when they play make-believe: the children act as though things that are clearly false to fact are true and they feel no guilt because they have all agreed to play the same game. But the bully does it without the agreement, because to him the other players of his game are irrelevant.
Psychologically we all do pretty much the same thing. When we talk to others to coordinate our activities we refer to a shared experience of what we accept as the real world. Statements that conform to the features of that world are true and others are false. We prefer that people make true statements, because we want everyone to play the game fairly. Thus, when I say something, I usually say it in order to get something that I want, but I also take into account the needs and the desires of the person to whom I make the statement.
When the bully says something, he does so for the sole purpose of getting something for himself, regardless of any burden that getting puts on others. He expresses no genuine consideration of others, because he has none. In his mind he is the only person in the world who counts for anything and others exist only to satisfy his desires, to cater to his happiness. In that context lies are as good as truth.
To misquote a statement that has been attributed to Vince Lombardi (who himself had a reputation as a bully), the bully isnít everything; heís the only thing that counts. He thinks only of himself. We say that heís full of himself, meaning that he has no room in his thoughts for others. He has no empathy for others, no compassion.
Empathy is fundamental to our humanity. As social animals, we have an inherent need to make others feel what we feel, especially if they are the ones who made us feel it. That need necessarily implies the ability to feel what others feel, to copy their emotions in ourselves. That ability enables the existence of literature, plays, and movies, among other things. It is also the source of fundamental morality, our sense of right and wrong, encoded in the Golden Rule. We may even say that it is the essence of the human soul, that feature of our minds that connects us to the rest of Humanity.
The bully suppresses empathy, giving himself something like a psychopathic personality. He doesnít care about others because he only cares about himself: he has no room in his mind for any consideration of the needs and feelings of others. He achieves that lack of consideration for others by diminishing them in his estimation, conceiving them as inferior beings unworthy of his consideration. He replaces empathy with self-righteousness.
Conception conditions perception: what we think determines how we will interpret what we see and hear. The fantasies that the bully plays in his imagination shape his interpretation of other peopleís actions. In those fantasies he plays the role of the abused victim who rises up in righteous anger and destroys his persecutors. We saw a perfect example of this psychodrama in the rise of the German Nazis. The bully develops a cold-hearted vindictiveness that he expresses in wanton brutality when he believes that he will suffer no consequences.
Now the bully is caught in a positive feedback loop (commonly called a vicious cycle). The more he abuses others, the more he fears them. He convinces himself that others are plotting his downfall and that belief enhances his sense of importance. But it also weakens him. The slightest criticism sends him into a panic. His own reaction makes the situation worse for him.
I realized that B.T.ís bullying was an expression of inner weakness when I saw him throw a tantrum in a small market. The market had recently been selling single servings of flavored milk in plastic bottles with metal foil caps. If a person squeezed the bottle too hard while shaking it up, the cap would pop off. Thatís what happened when B.T. brought a bottle to the checkstand and when the cap popped off, some milk spattered the woman standing behind him. The woman said, "Hey!" and B.T. spun around, made menacing gestures, and yelled obscenities at the woman. Instead of simply apologizing to the woman, telling her that he did not intend what happened and that he regretted it, he panicked. He reacted as if she had made a deadly threat against him. He was terrified that she would humiliate him in front of a bunch of strangers.
When B.T. worked in an office in a supervisorial position, he tried to hide his insecurity over his incompetence by asserting absolute dominance and perfect control over the people around him. He demanded absolutely no mistakes from his underlings, because he didnít want to face any criticism. He explained his attitude to me by saying, "I donít want to pull my pants down for anybody." By comparing being criticized to being raped he terrorized himself and kept himself ignorant and stupid. Self-imposed fear held him down.
Itís that obsessing over himself and his own feelings, excluding all others, that weakens the bully. Yet he wants to present himself as a tough guy, someone who canít be hurt or scared. He cultivates a sneering cruelty that is meant to express his toughness, though its actually a defense of his weakness. If he were truly tough, the little bumps and jolts of normal social interaction would not bother him and he would treat people better than they treat him. In reality he has a flimsy temper, so he treats people worse than they treat him, trying to intimidate them away from doing anything that might hurt him.
Self-deceit seems like it should not be possible. How can you successfully lie to yourself? But the bully does it, successfully practicing what George Orwell called doublethink in his novel "1984". That act of keeping two mutually contradictory ideas in mind and accepting both of them as valid works, because here again the bully applies the rules of make-believe. He knows, certainly, that heís a useless, impotent nobody, but he can also believe that heís the most important person in his part of the world. He can achieve that state as long as he gets what he wants. The secret to self-deceit, then, lies in what he wants.
What he wants is to achieve simple goals and any venue for that achievement will do. B.T. was married and had children, mostly not his, living with him. He didnít actually have a family because he genuinely didnít care about his wife and children. He married the woman solely in order to get his hands on some money she had inherited and he used the children as servants while he played Lord of the Manor. To further his self-aggrandizement he played childish games.
At the dinner table, for example, B.T. was the only member of the household allowed to eat butter: the other residents of the house had to eat margarine. In this way B.T. made himself feel special and important, looking down on the peons who were lucky to be living in his house and getting the cheap spread. When I first heard of this practice I remembered something that we had done when I was in kindergarten (1951).
All but one of the chairs we sat in were painted pale green: the other chair was painted bright red. Each day one of the students was chosen to sit in the red chair and that student was given special privileges that day. The lucky student felt special and important. Thatís fine for a bunch of five-year-olds, but in a grown man in his thirties it implies serious mental retardation.
In addition, B.T. was the only member of his household who got to eat dessert: the others had to sit and watch. He was thus able to pretend that they were admiring him. In actuality, I could almost hear him singing the Nyah Nyah song (I get dessert and you-ou do-onít. Nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah!).
But whatever the bully wants, he has to obtain it through deceit, coercion, or simple brute force. He is basically a parasite. The very idea of exerting any effort to benefit others offends him. Itís not that heís lazy. He had convinced himself that doing actual productive work is something that only inferior people do. In his mind superior people receive tribute from inferior people. With that belief he sabotages himself and prevents himself from improving his abilities and making himself truly valuable to his society. If he is obliged to work for a living, he resents that fact and the job that he must have. He practices a kind of cowardice. He is afraid to confront his deficiencies and work to overcome them.
That resentment can float free of its actual target. He doesnít dare express it to his employer, so he will express it against someone else. He will inflict his rage on anyone who crosses his path: this is what we expect from someone with the mentality of a small child. Indeed, I saw a perfect example of this one day. I was walking my dog and was passing a small market from which a man was dragging a screaming, crying boy, barely more than a toddler. The man was ignoring his sonís tantrum, but my dog shied away from the scene. The boy noticed and began screaming at the dog because she had given him a response to his fit of rage.
So we conceive the bully as developmentally retarded. But he doesnít exist in a vacuum. He is, like all of us, embedded in a human culture and the doctrines of that culture shape him as they shape the rest of us. In a culture that promotes narcissistic individualism and intense competition, that ranks people in a social hierarchy, bullies will thrive. Any culture that grants admiration to anyone who gets what he wants regardless of the cost to others will be infested with bullies.
Curing the disease necessitates changing the culture. The currently fashionable notion that tough men slip into violent rages at the drop of a hat should be recognized for the arrant nonsense that it truly is. The word tough implies something that does not get hurt easily and the violent thug does not meet that qualification. As one character put it in the movie "Bad Day at Black Rock", "a man is only as big as what makes him mad." By that criterion the bully is small potatoes indeed. A truly tough man will not treat people worse than they treat him. That should be obvious. Itís the flimsy man, the one with a weak temper, who wants to treat people worse than they treat him. Sadism and cruelty are the clearest signs of human failure.
In this we see the bully caught up in a fraud called "toxic masculinity", a parody of manhood centered on dominance and control. Someone under the spell of toxic masculinity is obsessed with the need to appear "tough" due to actual fear of appearing soft, weak, vulnerable, and emasculated. The victim of this poison valorizes violence and despises women, gay men, or anyone else who appears weak. A society caught up in this fraud despises diplomacy in favor of violent coercion and is ripe for the kind of military veneration cult that we saw in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.
Further, we must dispel the notion that we can measure power by what a person owns or controls. We would be much better off if we were to apply socially the engineersí definition of power Ė the rate at which a system does useful work. Nonuseful work merely increases entropy: in a physical system itís just waste heat. If we were to judge people by that criterion, we would have a much better society and the bullies would lose much of their moral support. Surely a society that admires someone who gives more than they get is a much better society than is one that admires what are essentially parasites.
To ensure the stability of such a culture some kind of sanctions must go with its values. Some feature of the culture must work to discourage self-aggrandizement. Without such a feature in play we would get situations similar to what happened with the salaries of corporate CEOs in the early 1990's. Prior to that time CEO pay rose slowly, but then one CEO demanded and got a large increase. Self-restraint among other CEOs evaporated as greed spread like an epidemic, creating a situation (as of 2016) similar to the one that existed in France just before the French Revolution occurred.
But itís not enough to build a culture that discourages bullies. Because the bully is developmentally retarded, he needs outside help in overcoming his deficiencies. That help is difficult to render because the bully doesnít want to acknowledge those deficiencies. He canít stand to be told that heís wrong about anything. He does not want to admit that he is inferior to what he could and should be. Thatís why the cultural aspect is important: if he has the whole world telling him that heís a failure, then heís going to have a much harder time pretending that heís a superior being.
One thing that B.T. will say if his behavior is challenged is that he is not responsible for what he does: itís always someone elseís fault, just as itís not his fault that heís a bully. This profession of impotence from someone who claims to be powerful seems strange. He will say that other people made him do all of those bad things, as if he had been overwhelmed by some malicious force. He claims that he lacks free will, that he is no more than a puppet of forces beyond his control.
Can that proposition be true to Reality? What is free will, after all? From what constraint does free will free us?
We claim that free will is one of the features that separate us from the other animals, so it must involve some mental process that other animals cannot carry out. Animals base their actions on instinct conditioned by experience, producing stereotyped responses to a small set of possible situations. Because of our inventiveness, we have a wider variety of situations to which we can respond (such as the use of fire), so we have evolved a special means of devising suitable responses Ė reason and imagination. Unlike animals, we can use our imagination to anticipate situations and to devise responses to those situations so that we can choose the best response before we encounter the situation. Thatís free will.
To a certain extent, then, B.T. is correct. He lacks free will to the extent that the deficiency in his brain makes him think like a small child. We know that small children, two or three years old, have no effective concept of the future. They can say the words that refer to the future, but those words are effectively meaningless: if you tell a child that you will spank him immediately if he takes a cookie, he wonít take the cookie, but if you tell him you will spank him tomorrow, he will take the cookie because in his mind tomorrow is meaningless. The child reasons like an animal, because we evolved from animals and we must pass through an animal stage before we develop our human capabilities. Itís those capabilities that B.T. has failed to develop. This is what I mean when I say that heís mentally retarded.
More importantly, he has to be shown how to succeed. That process has to begin in grammar school. From the very beginning students must be led through exercises that cultivate their social skills and enable them to function well in a more age appropriate manner. We need the schools to do this because too many families cannot do it. Indeed, we should teach the children to recognize and report abuse, because abused children are the most likely to become bullies and criminals.
He also has no vision of a better world to guide him. He doesnít think of himself as making the world a better place for others through his skills (if, indeed, he has any). As a consequence, he acts more like a weathervane, pointing in whichever direction the emotional wind blows. He behaves more like an animal than like a human, as if his brain were deficient in its prefrontal cortex.
Indeed, that deficiency seems to be real, an actual maldevelopment of the brain. It may have come about through disease, injury, or malnutrition (such as lead poisoning). Or it may have come about through the bodyís response to abuse or neglect. In either case, the process of normalizing a bully may benefit from some kind of therapy and/or medicine.
Finally, letís look at another aspect of this phenomenon of people acting as if possessed by a reptilian brain with the brakes off. For centuries the Catholic Church has taught that there are seven fundamental emotional processes and their attendant behaviors that are capable of destroying a personís soul. In theological terms, those Seven Deadly Sins alienate their practitioner from God and destine them to Hell: in secular terms, the practitioners of these sins are separated from any deep connection to Humanity. Of course, we recognize the bully as a practitioner of those lethal failings, a failure as a human being.
The list consists of Pride, Envy, Wrath, Avarice, Gluttony, Lust, and Sloth. We might also denote them as Vanity, Covetousness, Rage, Greed, Craving, Prurience, and Apathy. Fundamentally, they reflect a lack of self-control, so the corresponding virtues consist of Humility, Kindness, Patience, Generosity, Temperance, Chastity, and Diligence. The sins reflect damage to or underdevelopment of the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which lead to impulsiveness, a loss of self-control, and an inability or unwillingness to modify or inhibit behavior in ways appropriate to a social situation. Those deficiencies also lead to cognitive impairment, expressed in lack of intellectual flexibility and poor problem-solving skills. Those traits manifest an antisocial egocentrism that is rightly called Pride, which drives the other six Sins.
We say that the Seven Deadly Sins are soul killers. If we replace the theological concept with the complex of emotions that connect us to other humans (and also to animals and Nature), then thatís still a true statement. The sin is like the mythic black hole: the more you try to satisfy it, the bigger and more grasping it becomes. Greed is especially effective at emptying out a person. The insecure narcissism of early childhood makes a child susceptible to that positive feedback effect, so children must be given practice with the corresponding virtues and led to feel good about them.
The clear antidote to Pride is the development of a proper Humility. That development necessitates that our bully stop believing that he is greater than others. It also necessitates that he not feel that he is less than others, because unconsciously thatís how he feels: his pretense of superiority is merely an effort to keep that fact hidden.
We need to develop a culture in which there is no higher or lower, one in which people are equal but different, like the parts in a machine, all different but working together to produce the machineís output. In a good and decent society there is neither dominance nor subservience: there is only people working together to create, maintain, and improve a civilization that ensures the continued survival and flourishing of Humanity.
Empathy - the ability to discern another personís thoughts and feelings and to identify with that person through them.
Evil - an act that diminishes or demoralizes a person.
Sin - an evil committed against oneself.
Sociopathy: the phenomenon that occurs when one detaches from empathic feelings by blaming someone else, rather than accepting the truth of partial personal responsibility.
Stupidity - the inability to appreciate the obvious.
Appendix: A Note on Psychopathy
We often confuse the bully with the psychopath, because in many ways they are alike. The psychopath is a remorseless predator who goes out of his way to hurt people, while the bully is more reactive, being hypersensitive to any criticism, slight, or insult. In both cases we have an example of mental retardation, but the differences are instructive.
The Hare Test for psychopathy lists twenty traits that define the psychopath and distinguish him from normal people. The most important seventeen of those traits are as follows:
1. Glibness/superficial charm: The psychopath develops the ability to create the illusion that he cares about people and takes their interests to heart, though in actuality he is trying to learn about people and get them to trust him so that he can take advantage of them. This is a skill that bullies develop.
2. Grandiose sense of self-worth: The psychopath professes a belief that he is the only person in the world who counts for anything and that other people exist for the sole purpose of gratifying his desires. This is the means by which the psychopath covers up his subconscious sense of inferiority. He is inadequate to do anything that actually benefits people, so he feels useless and worthless. Instead of working to overcome the deficiency, the psychopath aggrandizes himself, judging himself by what he gets from others (regardless of the means, fair or foul) instead of judging himself by what he gives of himself. Of course, this is the driving force behind the bully.
3. Need for stimulation/proneness to boredom: Caring only about himself, the psychopath finds the world uninteresting. He craves entertainment in the form of drama and excitement, which he creates to the detriment of others. He seeks sensation with little to no regard for the consequences to others or to himself.
4. Pathological lying: The psychopath needs to control people, so he needs to control their conception of reality, especially the reality surrounding him, so he lies constantly. He must do this in order to prevent people from discovering just how worthless and despicable he really is.
5. Conning/manipulation: Using a combination of deceit and intimidation, the psychopath pushes people into giving him what he wants, even if the result harms the victims. There is no quid pro quo with a psychopath; indeed, the very suggestion that he treat people as he wants them to treat him offends him deeply.
6. Lack of remorse/guilt: Having convinced himself that other people exist for the sole purpose of gratifying his desires and being incapable of developing an emotional bond to another person, the psychopath has no reaction when people are harmed by his actions. He has no sense that heís done wrong: in his mind he is never wrong.
7. Shallow affect: The psychopathís emotions are much shallower than normal and, thus, have little effect on his behavior. While he may display what look like intense feelings, theyíre more of a sham intended to impress others and not a real reflection of his reaction to a situation.
8. Callousness/lack of empathy: This is considered by some as the defining trait of psychopathy and indicates a form of brain damage. A psychopath does not react emotionally to occurrences that evoke an emotional response in normal people.
9. Parasitic lifestyle: The psychopath draws on the resources of others as much as he can get away with. As a person incapable of benefitting others, he needs to do that. The bully has a similar need, but he may survive on his own merits, simply resenting the need to do so.
10. Promiscuous sexual behavior: Being able to seduce many women appeals to the psychopath, because he can interpret it as a reward for just being himself. He can believe that all women want to be with him and all men wish they could be him. The bully shares the same desperate need for something resembling social acceptance.
11. Early behavior problems: Without an emotional basis for making judgements, the psychopath will act on whatever moves him, regardless of how it affects others. Thus, he often gets himself into trouble. The bully, driven by fear and hatred, also lacks good judgement and gets himself into trouble often.
12. Lack of realistic, long-term goals: His long-term goals, if he has any, tend to be grandiose delusions of achieving dominance over others. He is incapable of dreaming of working with others for mutual benefit. This is true of the bully as well. His obsession with dominating others makes him useless as a member of a human society.
13. Impulsivity: With no emotional warning system to act as a brake on his behavior, the psychopath leaps into activities without rethinking them, especially in moral terms. Some bullies control themselves well enough to stay out of legal trouble where a psychopath wouldnít.
14. Failure/refusal to accept responsibility: In his own mind the psychopath is never wrong about anything; therefore, he is never at fault when something bad happens. This is one of the means that he uses to retard his mental growth. We see this feature in the bullyís personality, because accepting responsibility, in the bullyís mind, is equivalent to admitting his inferiority to others.
15. Many short-term marital relationships: With very weak emotions, the psychopath is unable to create stable interpersonal relationships. What a chemist would call binding energy is not available to him, so his relationships fall apart easily. Bullies, on the other hand, have long-lasting relationships, but they are based on dominance of the other rather than on actual love.
16. Juvenile delinquency: The desire to abuse people will get the psychopath in trouble from an early age. The bully also displays his antisocial personality from early childhood.
17. Criminal versatility: His desire to take advantage of other peopleís vulnerabilities leads the psychopath to develop the knowledge and skills to perpetrate crimes with minimal chance of getting caught. The bully does essentially the same.
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