Bullying, the Empathy Gap, & the Diffusion of Responsibility

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(Photo: Catherine Ledner)

(Photo: Catherine Ledner)

By Eric Thompson

We humans tend to behave strangely when we are in large groups; the social pressure to act “normal” can be incapacitating.

We have all heard a story about somebody in need of assistance surrounded by a group of people who then fails to receive the help they need. This phenomenon is called The Bystander Effect, and it refers numerous studies that have concluded that the greater amount of people present, the less likely people are to help a person in distress.

Researchers explain this behavior as being a result of the Diffusion of Responsibility. Basically, the burden of responsibility to intervene is diminished because it is shared by all of the spectators.


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One of the other reasons psychologists explain why people fail to intervene in these situations is because people fear disrupting the social norm. When a person sees other observers fail to take action it sends a signal that an intervention may not be appropriate or needed.

Now mix in the social pressure that comes with being an adolescent, the lack of judgement thanks to an under-developed frontal lobe, and a constant stream of marketing messages that celebrate those close to power and exploit those furthest away from it, and it is clear why bullying is so pervasive in our schools.

That is why implementing an UPstander Intervention Training Program is crucial to creating a safe and inclusive learning environment.

If we are going to prevent bullying from occurring and build a culture of civility in our schools, we must empower our students and provide them with the critical tools necessary to do it themselves.

Entire school communities must be properly trained in how to recognize, interrupt, and respond to social situations that threaten the collective brilliance of their community.

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One of our highest points of leverage in our society is the ability to develop empathic concern in our young people.

Developing a culture that promotes empathic concern is a deliberate process. The social psychologist Daniel Batson explained empathic concern in his book, The Altruism Question, “as other-oriented emotions elicited by and congruent with the perceived welfare of someone in need.”

Basically, understanding how a person feels is not enough to influence a bystander to become an UPstander, they must also care about the person’s well-being to take action and offer assistance. Schools and organizations able to create an other-oriented climate lay the foundation for community members to move from survival mode to performance mode.

When this happens, it is easy to recognize because stake holders connect rather than communicate, educators teach students how to think rather than what to think, and individuals are celebrated rather than indoctrinated.  The energy is palpable.

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Building a culture that shifts focus from me to we, is like steering an aircraft carrier, it takes a lot of energy and is a methodical process. However, cultivating a culture of respect and civility requires students to appreciate their ability to influence the social norm and inspire UPstander behavior within their community.

Closing the empathy gap is not only essential to building safer, more inclusive learning environments, but it is also a prerequisite for success within our global economy.

Leaders who possess a healthy balance of self-awareness, empathic concern, and systems awareness are designed and developed, not discovered.  Moreover, these qualities are the conduit for innovation. Shaping curriculum and seizing opportunities to develop these executive functions in our young people builds healthy, socially-conscious communities that thrive.

Do not get stifled by the Diffusion of Responsibility phenomenon.  Take some deliberate steps so that your school community can make some strides towards narrowing the empathy gap.

Here is a simple and quick assessment that measure a person’s empathic concern. Take a look at the questions and see what current tasks you may be able to integrate to foster other-oriented focus.

If your school community is hurting because of a bullying culture, it sounds as if there are students and families who could use your help. If you think that you lack the necessary skills to facilitate change, let me assure you that if you’ve read all the way through this article, you may not be an expert, but you are equipped with specific knowledge that can serve your community.

Energy flows where attention goes.

Now here is a little motivation for you:

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