Hurting others hurts us: Study

By Anne Collier

Although the victim is usually the focus in discussions about the impacts of social cruelty, everybody involved in it feels some pain or distress, research shows. Two recent studies offer fresh insights into the impacts on bystanders, both those who witness cruel behavior and those who feel compelled to participate. First the latter, from the University of Rochester.

“When people bend to pressure to exclude others, they also pay a steep personal cost. Their distress is different from the person excluded, but no less intense,” said Richard Ryan, psychology professor and co-author of “Hurting You Hurts Me Too: The Psychological Costs of Complying With Ostracism.” The study found that the distress comes from feelings of “shame and guilt, along with a diminished sense of autonomy,” said Nicole Legate, lead author, because “we are social animals at heart. We typically are empathetic and avoid harming others unless we feel threatened” (which says something about bullies too).

But even observing social cruelty exacts a psychological price, an earlier study at Brunel University in the UK found. “Bystanders are significantly affected by the bullying they witness or hear about, so much so that they may be at an increased risk of self-harming behavior,” wrote Prof. Ian Rivers. “The single most significant predictor of suicide risk among bystanders was found to be powerlessness [emphasis his].” He and colleagues also found “higher rates of absenteeism and substance abuse, along with depression and anxiety among school pupils who had witnessed bullying.”

All of which points to the importance of agency and community as well as empathy: empowering all school community members, especially students, with the understanding that each one is key to the well-being of each other as well as the community as a whole. The authors of the University of Rochester study wrote that their findings suggest “that the psychological costs of rejecting others is linked primarily to the thwarting of autonomy and relatedness.” How important it is, then…

  • Not to represent young people as potential victims, as has typically been done in bullying-prevention and Internet-safety messaging.
  • To give them and all involved the tools to be active contributors to their community’s well-being – social literacy tools (see “Related links”).

The powerlessness Dr. Rivers’s work turned up in bystanders points to those needs too. It’s what is mitigated by the agency of what scholars and game designers refer to in self-determination theory, which says “people across cultures have basic human needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness and meeting these hard-wired needs leads to greater happiness and psychological growth,” according to the University of Rochester researchers. Interesting: I’m seeing more and more points of intersection between social literacy, safety, school, and good game design (see the links just below).

Related links

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