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Does Raising Awareness About Bullying Cause More Bullying?


Bullying is a popular topic in the news these days. Anderson Cooper is doing a special on it, the United States government is stepping in, Dr. Phil did his thing and advertising firms are being hired to launch campaigns to combat its negative consequences. One of the main strategies used to stop bullying is awareness. The line of reasoning is that if people know about it, talk about it and witness its outcomes then bullying will be reduced. This general intuition – that raising awareness is the first step in fighting a cause – is common. Many times it works too, campaigns that raise awareness about global diseases such as Malaria and HIV-AIDS garner millions of dollars. Other times, however, it backfires.

The classic case is Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E), a “an international education program that seeks to prevent use of controlled drugs, membership in gangs, and violent behavior.” D.A.R.E was launched back in the 1980s when crime rates in the United States were high and the War on Drugs was peaking. On the surface, D.A.R.E is a good idea. It recruits local police officers to come into elementary and middle schools to teach kids the power and perils of drugs and violence. There is just one problem: it doesn’t work. According to University of Virginia professor of psychology Timothy Wilson, “a number of well-controlled experiments have shown that the program has no effect on the students’ use of tobacco, alcohol, or other drugs.”

Then there is the case of the Juvenile Awareness Project, one of the first “scared-straight” initiatives aimed to reduce the chances at-risk kids have of ending up in jail. In a typical session, the kids (12 to 18 year-olds) visit a local prison where they spend time with inmates who speak about their crimes. Not any inmates either. They were usually “lifers” put in jail for violent crimes including rape and murder. The idea behind the project is that if you show an at-risk kid what happens to people who succumb to violence, drugs and the like then he or she will be less likely to make the same mistakes. However, as Wilson also explains, “not only do scared-straight programs fail to reduce the likelihood that kids will commit crimes, they actually increase criminal activity.”

He goes on to say:

A review of sever experimental tests that measured how likely participants and nonparticipants were to commit crimes, in time periods ranging from three to fifteen months after a scared-straight intervention, found that the kids who attended the interventions were more likely to commit crimes than were kids in the control groups in every single study. The increase in criminal activity among the scared-straight kids ranged from 1 percent to 30 percent, with an average of 13 percent.

The question is: why did these programs backfire? To answer this, Wilson and Daniel Lassiter ran a two-session experiment. In the first session, they gave participants twenty trivia questions and told them that the answers were hidden behind a piece of cardboard on a blackboard, which was in the room they took the test. Participants took the test alone where they could’ve easily cheated – none of them did. Then they ran the same experiment with another group of participants. This group, however, received “a strong external reason not to cheat.” (The experimenter told them that the data would be ruined if they cheated and they wouldn’t get credit).

In the second session, about a week later, Wilson and Lassiter gave both groups a difficult achievement test and instructed them to spend about a minute on each question and move on; they were also specifically told to not go back to look over and correct their answers (think the GRE or SAT). Wilson and Lassiter were looking to see if those who were given the external reason not to cheat would cheat more than those who weren’t. That is exactly what they found: “The students who had received the superfluous threat at the first session spent more than four times as long reworking their answers on the second test than did the students who had not received the superfluous threat.” So sadly, being told not to cheat actually causes people to cheat, at least in Wilson and Lassiter’s study.

Back to bullying.

The idea here is simple: raising awareness about something raises interest in it. But sometimes this interest translates into imitation. In the case of drugs, violence and cheating these studies illustrate that kids are more likely to add to the problem because they became aware of the problem. As Wilson sums up, “programs provide kids with external motivation – wanting to avoid the horrors of prison – that can, paradoxically, undermine their internal motivation to take the straight path.”

With this in mind, we should rethink our strategies aimed to reduce bullying because sometimes raising awareness backfires.

  • PS. A few hours after posting this article, @itendstodayinc followed me on twitter. Here is their description, “The It Ends Today, Inc. is a non-profit anti-bullying organization. The mission of the It Ends Today foundation is to promote anti-bullying awareness.” I don’t think they are getting it….

Wilson, T., & Lassiter, G. (1982). Increasing intrinsic interest with superfluous extrinsic constraints. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 42 (5), 811-819 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.42.5.811

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. While this is a personal experience, most of these programs like DARE lie to kids to promote a religious/political agenda. Promoting virginity does not constitute sex education. Telling kids pot is as bad as meth, but booze is ok does not lead to creditability.

    Another wonderful article most parents would agree with.

    October 13, 2011
    • sammcnerney #

      Thanks for the comment Patrick.

      October 13, 2011
  2. ThatsBasicScience #

    Great post! That’s a very interesting study.

    October 13, 2011
  3. Anders #

    This reminds me about “Drive” by Daniel H Pink. It basically says that rewards are likely to make people perform worse, and threats of punishment are likely to induce more of the unwanted behaviour. The science is clear on this…

    Raising awareness is not the way, but rather embracing the intrinsic motivators for doing good.

    October 14, 2011
    • sammcnerney #

      I hadn’t thought about that. Good point. I liked Drive very much.

      Intrinsic motivation seems to be a pretty powerful thing.

      October 14, 2011
  4. Gunilla Falt #

    In Sweden a widely spread anti-bullying program called FRIENDS proved unefficient and is not recommended anymore… the intentions were good though.

    October 17, 2011
  5. I’ve long suspected that these well-intentioned programs don’t work as well as intended. Instead of raising awareness of bullying, perhaps instituting programs that teach and stress tolerance, acceptance,understanding and kindness much earlier might help turn the tide on bullying. Couldn’t hurt, at least.

    October 20, 2011

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  1. Campaigns to raise awareness can exacerbate the problem - Insight Database

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