Shooters, like Bullies, Can Misperceive Social Norms

by Larry Magid

I don’t know what motivated the young man who allegedly murdered several people and critically wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords but whether or not the case, his actions could possibly have been affected by what he saw on TV, heard on the radio or read on the Internet.

I would never equate bullying with murder but when trying to understand this tragedy, I am reminded about how other young people in our society are influenced by what they too read, hear and see.

In April, I wrote a column entitled “Adults On TV Are Bad Role Models for Teen Bullies,” pointing out how young people learn not from how we tell them to act but how we (adults) act in their presence. While the alleged 22-year old shooter is technically an adult, he is a very young man and, aside from what whatever mental instabilities he may have, like many young people, he is likely influenced by his media environment.

Of course it’s too early to tell exactly what motivated him and premature to convict him in the press before he’s even arraigned let alone tried. But even putting this case aside, I have no doubt that young people today are growing up in a climate where media personalities, politicians and even some elected officials are providing the fuel and perceived moral authority that encourages their own anti-social behavior.

Flaming Wars

And it’s not just leaders. If you look at the comments on many blog posts, you’ll see that it’s all to common for adults to write hateful remarks, even on things that seem a bit trivial on my beat like how Macs compare with Windows PCs. Most people don’t get up in arms over everything they read, but in a medium as vast and open as the Internet, there will always be some who don’t hesitate to lash out when given a chance. As a blogger, I’m happy to have people disagree with what I write, but I’m not happy when they use it as an excuse to attack my integrity.

The good news is that the vast majority of people do not engage in bullying on or offline and reject the politics of hate. Yet we are bombarded with it not just on certain cable TV and radio talk-shows but by the comments of relatively mainstream politicians and even some of our network TV shows which glamorize putting other people down.

Perceived Norms Affect Behavior

How people think others act affects how they act. For example, research has shown that people are more likely to smoke if they think that others around them smoke. In a June 2008 article (PDF) from the Journal of the National Medical Association, Christopher L. Edwards and his colleagues pointed out that “perceived tobacco use acceptability, have been shown to be strong predictors of adolescent and young-adult smoking behaviors.”

The same applies to bullying. In a paper presented at the 2008 National Conference on the Social Norms Approach, H. Wesley Perkins and David Craig reported on a survey of more than 52,000 students from 78 secondary concluded that while bullying is not in fact the norm, many youth perceive it is as normal. “The most common (and erroneous) perception is that the majority engage in and support such behavior.”

And when people perceive things as normal, they are more likely to act on those perceptions. The researchers found that the “perceptions of bullying behaviors are highly predictive of personal bullying behavior.”

As sad and tragic as this shooting was, it is also rare, and it’s important that we remember that the vast majority of people in America are not only not likely to commit acts of violence but are also capable of engaging in respectful disagreement. Just as most teens don’t bully, most of us accept that America is made up of people with a wide variety of political and religious beliefs as well as people with different accents, skin colors and sexual preferences. As a country we are reasonably tolerant and reasonably civil yet there are those among us — including some of our leaders — who are not part of the norm.

I’m not suggesting that the politicians and commentators who have used vitriolic rhetoric against Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and others were deliberately trying to incite violence, but they were contributing to a “norm” that it’s OK to demonize and dehumanize your political opponents and those who you disagree with or who may be different than you are. While it is OK to disagree, it’s not OK to harass belittle or defame others. That’s why it’s important to marginalize, not glamorize, anti-social remarks. I’m happy for people to use the Internet or mass media to express disagreement and engage in discourse. That is and should remain the norm. But hate, bigotry and dehumanizing one’s opponent is not normal and should be not celebrated or encouraged. It is nothing more than bullying.

In the wake of this tragedy, we all need to start to appreciate our differences and learn to respect one another. Parents need to communicate that to our children, and our leaders need to start acting the way we tell our children to act.

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