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Friday, August 7, 2015

Self-reporting studies

A friend sent this article the other day: Provocative new study finds bullies have highest self-esteem, social status lowest rates of depression.

The researchers said that bullies in general tend to be more popular, get more sex, and have higher self-esteem.

I'm sure they have a point, and the "bullies get more sex" part of their conclusion is both tangible and quantifiable. But how do they measure popularity?

It's hard to put stock in any theory that doesn't define its terms better. "Bullying" encompasses a wide array of behaviors, and also two major categories: verbal and physical. You'd also have to categorize all the different types of verbal bullying. There's a lot of behavior -- like classic one-upsmanship -- which some might classify as bullying but others would not.

Virtually everyone would say that mocking someone for being in a wheelchair constitutes bullying. But is asking what someone got on his SAT's and then citing your own (higher) score bullying? Most would say not. But what about saying, nyah nyah, I had better SAT's than you? Or what about stating, I'm way smarter than you? Or how about calling someone a moron? Most would say that last constitutes bullying, but exactly where do you draw the line?

Do practical jokes constitute bullying? Some can be mild, and some can be cruel. Your perception of which constitute bullying might depend on whether you're perpetrator or victim.

And what about all the moral preening -- along with attempted moral shaming -- we see from liberals: they probably don't think of that as bullying, but it could be classified as such.

This blog could easily be accused of bullying. I make fun of all sorts of people, from FEMEN to fashion designers to Donald Trump. One man's truth-telling is another man's bullying. It all depends on which side of the fence you're sitting on.

Another vaguely defined term is "self esteem." Some people define "self esteem" at thinking you're good at a lot of things. But others define "low self esteem" as thinking you're good at things when you're not. Which is it? It's all too vague to be particularly meaningful.

It's all a little reminiscent of those articles you sometimes see on the internet with titles like, "Which countries has the happiest people?" How exactly do they measure "happiness?" They ask people if they're happy.

Gee, that sounds pretty scientific.

If you were to be asked if you were happy, how would you respond? You'd probably think, hmm, have things been going well for me recently? Then you might take a step back and think, am I content with my lot in life? But since we've only experienced our own lives, none of us really knows how our emotional set points compare to other people's.

Our general frame of mind is probably determined by the level of serotonin in our brains, our hormones, our energy levels, and various other neurobiological factors.

But do the researchers consider any of that? No -- they simply ask, are you happy? Then, they take people at their word. (How many people are motivated to lie one way or the other?)

All that said, there's probably something to this study on bullying. After all, we all do it to some extent. And the extent to which we do probably depends largely on what we think we can get away with.

But, I suppose that depends on how you define "get away with."


mark said...

Bullies are probably happy that they are not being bullied. Actually, all these happiness studies do change how I think about things. When I am upset and I read that people who have x are generally happier than people who have Y. I wonder if Y might be contributing to my unhappiness. In the past, it would have been a vague sense of unhappiness with no known cure. The happiness industry tells people to get married, have more friends or get a raise and these are things the reader may not be able to do it, immediately or ever. They feel worse about themselves then before because now they think another decision may have led to greater happiness even if that fact is ultimately, unknowable, and irreversible anyway. I have some more faith in statistics like suicide rates or turnover but those numbers don't tell you every thing. Gratitude is always good so Thank you for the blog.

John Craig said...

Mark --
That's an interesting point: happiness surveys (and any kind of focus on happiness, for that matter) can make people less happy. It's true, they say the happiest people are those who lose themselves in helping others. I've also heard that we are happiest when totally absorbed in something (like a crossword puzzle) so we're not thinking about ourselves.

Anyway, if gratitude is good -- in the sense of making us happy -- then thank you for your comment.

Anonymous said...

Regarding bullies, I question if they have ever issues with their self-esteem, predominantly because they aren't self-reflective people. They don't care what others think of them and typically won't change their ways for anyone. For me, I think of self-esteem as how you feel "inside" about yourself, on an emotional level.

- Susan

John Craig said...

Susan --
True, but the point of this post is that the world isn't divided into bullies and nice people. We all have a little bit of bully in us, and I'm certainly no exception. Also, one thing about "self esteem," even though it is, at a basic level, about how we feel about ourselves, that can change from time to time depending on what we've just accomplished (or failed at).

Taylor Leland Smith said...

These studies are always flawed. When asked tough questions like "how happy are you these days?", people typically think of an easier question to answer, a 'heuristic'. For example, they did this study where they asked people "how happy are you these days?" and then, a bit later "how many dates did you have last month?". The correlation between the two answers was about zero. Dating was not what came to mind when answering "how happy am i these days?". Then they asked a different group of students in the reverse order; "how many dates did you have last month?" and then a bit later "how happy are you these days?". The results that time were completely different; the correlation was about as high as might see in a psychological experiment.

What that suggests is that people usually substitute tough questions that require a lot of mental effort with easier questions. So, if you ask someone "what is your current salary / earnings?" and then "how happy are you these days?" there's a good chance that their income will influence their answer.

This is partly why economists don't trust surveys. Buying something tells us something about how you value it, but asking you what it is worth tells us nothing. It's likely the same thing with bullying and self esteem.

People are also terrible judges of their own morality. In one study they took fifteen people and put them into separate rooms. One by one they would talk into a microphone for the rest to hear, and tell each other about themselves. One of the participants was planted, and would tell the others about how they had a tendency to have seizures in high stress situations. In the second round that individual then faked a seizure. Everyone else could hear that this person was having a seizure but didn't know how everyone else responded. On average, only 4 of the 15 people immediately went to help that individual. They basically assumed someone else would do it. Even when people are aware of these statistics, if you ask them if they would respond, or if someone they knew would respond, they always judge that they would in fact help. In reality, however, we know that most people wouldn't. This sort of relates to the bullying thing. Most people probably don't judge themselves to be bullies, yet I'm sure most people have participated in bullying someone at some point.

Anyways, I don't trust those studies at all, even when the results are what I'd expect.

John Craig said...

Taylor --
That really rings true about the leading questions. These studies are basically like push polls, where the wording of the question and the order in which things are asked are calculated to push people in a certain direction. Pollsters are notorious for this as well.

As far as people being terrible judges of their own morality, that's true too. In general, as I've noted elsewhere on this blog, it's only sociopaths who will goon and on about what wonderful, moral, noble people they are. And it tends to be the nicest people who are quickest to assume blame or question themselves.

So, yeah, all these studies have to be taken with a big grain of salt, especially considering the researcher often starts out with a theory that he WANTS to prove.

Bob Wallace said...

I've seen bullies get their asses beaten in ten seconds and then beg to stop being hit. I've seen this one than once. When I got older some of them got murdered.

This is not a study that is realistic.

John Craig said...

Bob --
That's actually gratifying to hear. But you're talking about physical bullies, and I'm not even sure the study was dealing with those, as they never define what they meant by "bully."

Agreed, though, that the study is somewhat meaningless.