A new study just released by the Kellogg School of Management, shows that victims of bullying often do not get the support, intervention or advocacy they need due directly to the fact that people fail to understand the long-term consequences of social trauma. The article refers to this issue as an “empathy gap”, showing that many people still believe that the severity of long-term emotional injury that bullying causes is underestimated.
““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 study leader Loran Nordgren, assistant professor of management and organizations. “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. Only by having a heightened sense of empathy to victims’ true suffering can we begin to pave the way for reform and new policies.”
The study, which is titled “Empathy Gaps for Social Pain: Why People Underestimate the Pain of Social Suffering” was conducted by researchers from the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada. The “empathy gap” theory is explained as that the researchers found that people have difficulty understanding the severity that a victim suffers unless they themselves experience it. This is often true for victims I talk to as well who have so many people ask them why they just don’t get over what happened to them and move on. The article goes on to explain how the experiment was conducted.
“The researchers conducted five experiments that simulated a socially painful event. In four of the experiments, 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.
A fifth experiment 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 basis1, and 43 percent of students have experienced some form of cyber-bullying2. 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.”
According to Nordgren, future research aimed at improving public policy should consider ways of closing the empathy gap as a means to correct distorted judgments of social pain, such as improved counseling for bullied students or simulating self-induced mild states of social pain to heighten understanding of others’ pain.”3
I couldn’t agree more that not only do we have to concentrate on the prevention of bullying, but a large emphasis must continue to be focused on the recovery from bullying for both the victim and the bully. It is good to see studies like this being conducted that will ultimately help us to understand how to better treat the victims so the long-term damage can be mitigated. To read the full article about this study that the above quotes were pulled from, click here.
1 Simone Rovers, Jijun Zhang, Jennifer Truman, and Thomas D. Snyder, “Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2010,” National Center for Education Statistics, (2010): iv, http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/content/pub/pdf/iscs10.pdf
2 Chris Mossener, “Cyber Bullying,” National Crime Prevention Council, (2007): 2, http://www.ncpc.org/resources/files/pdf/bullying/Cyberbullying%20Trends%20-%20Tudes.pdf
3 Quotes above are referenced from the article “Understanding the “empathy gap”” (2011),