It may not be perfect, but the New York Times is the model of what a newspaper should be. The writers are smart and adhere to a high level of journalistic integrity. Nevertheless, it misunderstands the issue of bullyingjust like the rest of society. As a result, it recommended that all medical schools adopt policies scientifically proven to have failed.
The August 9th edition carried a fascinating article by Dr. Pauline Chen about the failure of anti-bullying policies in medical school. In “The Bullying Culture of Medical School,” she described the abuse senior physicians often unleash against those beneath them. The article came on the tracks of a recent scientific study reporting the disappointing results of the intensive efforts of the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA to eliminate abusive behavior.
In 1995, the medical school began a multi-faceted program to improve the way staff treat students. As the NY Times reports:
“They adopted policies to reduce abuse and promote prevention; established a Gender and Power Abuse Committee, mandated lectures, workshops and training sessions for students, residents and faculty members; and created an office to accept confidential reports, investigate and then address allegations of mistreatment.”
What were the results of thirteen years of surveys conducted at the school?
“While there appears to have been a slight drop in the numbers of students who report experiencing mistreatment, more than half of all medical students still said that they had been intimidated or physically or verbally harassed.”
The article also reports that the results for the school were typical of medical schools in general. Joyce Fried, the lead author of the paper, said, “We were really crushed when we saw the results. We were disappointed that [the abusive school culture] was so difficult to change.”
The only explanation offered for the dismal results is that the culture of bullying is extremely hard to change. In the concluding paragraphs, the article states:
“’We’re talking about the really hard task of changing a culture, and that has to be done on a national level,’ Ms. Fried said. Such an effort would include shared training programs, common policies regarding mistreatment and greater transparency about the mistreatment that currently exists in medical schools.”
In other words, the way to reduce abuse is for the entire country to unite in implementing the very same policies that failed for the David Geffen School of Medicine! This is the same conclusion that is inevitably drawn whenever anti-bullying policies are found to fail in schools and the workplace: We need to implement the policies more intensively and consistently. Albert Einstein said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
In theory, researchers are supposed to be impartial regarding their studies and emotionally indifferent to the results. In reality, such neutrality is almost nonexistent. Researchers usually have a strong interest in the interventions they study and are desperately hoping to prove their effectiveness. It is understandable that Ms. Fried, who is chairwoman of the Gender and Power Abuse Committee at the medical school, was devastated by the failure of the school’s policies. We can’t fault her for continuing to believe in the policies’ effectiveness and for insisting that all medical schools need to do what she believes they should despite the contrary indications of her own research.
But the NY Times is supposed to be free of bias and to seek to uncover objective truth. The correct conclusion from the study would be that we should probably get rid of these policies because they are a waste of time and money. Why is the article’s author, who is a doctor and therefore a scientist, willing to unquestioningly promote Ms. Fried’s invalid conclusion in “the newspaper of record”? And why would the Times’ editors allow it to be printed in their paper?
The reason is that they are human beings like the rest of us. Antibullyism is the most popular social movement in world history because everyone likes the idea that other people are the bad guys and society should eliminate them for us. The idea of anti-bullying policies sounds so obviously right that not even diligent NY Times reporters consider the possibility that it may be wrong.
Ms. Fried and the NY Times, like the rest of us, want to see bullying reduced. But we can’t do this through bad science. What is the point of doing research if we are going to ignore the results? We need to accept unpleasant findings and apply an accurate understanding of human psychology if we wish to solve problems.
There are two basic mistakes the NY Times and everyone else is making about bullying. Those mistakes are preventing society from reducing it.
Mistake Number One
The first mistake is assuming that bullying is cultural and that the solution, therefore, is to change the culture. Because of this mistake, whenever efforts to change the culture fail, we conclude that we need to beef up our efforts to change it.
But it is not culture that is hard to change. Culture is relatively easy to change. Culture is constantly changing, and it is changing more rapidly then ever thanks to modern technology. Anyone old enough to be a grandparent can attest to the massive changes our culture has undergone in less than one lifetime.
The thing that’s hard to change is not culture. It’s nature that’s hard to change (gays who’ve been subjected to conversion therapy can attest to that!) No matter how hard we try, we cannot eliminate the human drives for sex, food, water, air, sleep and companionship. They have been part of our makeup from the beginning of life and any attempts to get rid of them are bound to fail and cause misery. And another drive that cannot be eliminated is dominance. The drive for power is as basic and necessary for life as any of those other more “obviously biological” drives.
Bullying goes on in the entire animal kingdom. Not only doesn’t this surprise scientists, we understand that it is necessary and inevitable in nature.
Have human beings ceased being animals? Have we evolved into pure spirit like angels from Heaven that can only do good deeds? Or have we, perhaps, become like our computers and robots that can do whatever their human programmers decided? Is there any logical reason to believe that official policies have the power to create a social organization whose members are always nice to each other and treat each other like absolute equals?
The most important social psychology experiment ever conducted was, in my opinion, the Stanford Prison Experiment by Prof. Philip Zimbardo in 1971. A group of college students, screened to make sure they don’t have any obvious psychological problems, were randomly assigned to play guards and prisoners for two weeks in a mock prison set up in a university basement. The experiment was discontinued after six days because the situation became so incredibly realistic. The “guards” became extraordinarily sadistic to the “prisoners” who simultaneously became horribly tormented, even to the point of nervous breakdown.
There is a wealth of knowledge that can be obtained from the Stanford Prison Experiment. One thing it reveals is the well-known psychological principle that people take on the roles that are assigned to them. The students who were randomly assigned to be guards developed the mentality and behavior of guards. Those assigned to be prisoners developed the mentality and behavior of prisoners.
Another important lesson is that when people are in a position of power, they tend to abuse that power. This is not cultural. It is natural.
The Stanford experiment helps us understand phenomena such as the Holocaust, in which the most cultured people in the world became the most systematically murderous. As much as we may hate to acknowledge it, the Nazis are not them. They are us.
When we witness doctors abusing their power, we are not seeing culture in action. We are seeing nature. The abuse is not because of culture but despite it.
Education Editor, Israel “Izzy” Kalman, is Director of Bullies to Buddies (www.Bullies2Buddies.com), a program that teaches the practical application of the Golden Rule to reduce bullying and aggression and solve relationship problems.
Self-Educated American recommends Israel Kalman’s: Bullies to Buddies: How to Turn Your Enemies Into Friends