Who would dare to challenge the killer whale, an apex predator at the top of the food chain?
Scientists have observed situations in which pods of humpback whales have curiously intervened in orca hunts to protect wounded whale calves, seals, sea lions, porpoises and other marine mammals. What would possess an animal to do such a thing?
Researchers don’t know for sure. Humpbacks may mistakenly think a young whale associated with their own pod is threatened, or it may be that interfering in orca hunts eventually pays off for their own species. Humpback whales may even be intelligent enough to have some degree of empathetic response.
Whatever the answer, there’s some instinctive or evolutionary response that prompts these animal bystanders to intervene.
Humans, of course, live in complex societies, with far more evolved relationships. So what makes humans less inclined to stand up to threats far less dangerous than a killer whale?
Researchers who study ways to reduce bullying look at the third party in the bully/bullied interaction: the bystander. He or she often has unutilized power to end a peer’s torment or minimize the risk posed to others.
If a bully, liar or cheat has an emotional or narcissistic wound so deep that he is unable to change his behavior, it becomes the responsibility of those around him to sound the alarm. When those who know better are silent, they become just as guilty as the aggressor.
As we’ve seen, however, people often don’t speak up when they have firsthand knowledge that someone is endangering or hurting others. There are many reasons for turning a blind eye when an insecure person tells outrageous lies or torments others.
They may include:
1. Apathy. The offender’s lies are so ridiculous and over-the-top that any reasonable person knows he is lying, and it’s not worth the fight to challenge it. The default response becomes to tune it out or roll one’s eyes.
2. Rationalization. Some onlookers are unable -- or unwilling -- to see the stakes of a bully’s bad behavior. This is the camp that says, “Fibbing is annoying.” They minimize the damage of antisocial behavior. They focus on how they might benefit, and ignore the reprehensible means.
3. Callousness. Others simply don’t worry about lies or harassment or threatening behavior that doesn’t impact them personally. As long as someone else is the victim or potential victim, they are unbothered.
4. Fear of the bully. Sometimes a bystander does feel empathy and concern, but is simply too afraid of becoming a target of the bully. They lack the courage to speak up or stand up against wrongdoing, even anonymously.
5. Fear of consequences. There are those who fear losing social standing or facing backlash from others aside from the bully. In these situations, the culture of the institution, whether it’s a school or workplace, often enables and empowers the bully. Many systems respond to reports by positioning the bully as the victim, and the whistleblower as the problem.
6. Greed. Other bystanders are more complicit. They want something from the bully, so they are willing to aid and abet unethical or cruel actions. They stand to gain personally from enabling the bully.
7. Protection. Some people, especially weaker ones, are easily seduced by power. They feel protected by association with a bully. It’s easier for them to be part of a protected in-group, no matter how compromised.
8. Desensitization. Those who spend the most time around a bully become accustomed to cruelty and antisocial behavior. They see everyone around them tolerating it, as well.
9. Meanness. There are some who share the same moral defects as the bully. They are just as ruthless, self-centered, greedy, spiteful or nasty. They don’t act out as much as the alpha bully because they are lower in the pecking order and don’t wield as much power. But they take pleasure in the hatefulness committed in their proximity.
Once we understand and identify what prevents bystanders from intervening, we can look for ways to better engage them.
A child may be too timid or scared to speak up around a powerful bully. That’s why parents need to have some awareness of the social dynamics in their child’s environments: Ask if they witness bullying at the bus stop, on the playground, in the classroom or in the school hallway. Let your child know that you would talk to school officials about it -- even if they aren’t the one being bullied -- and why. Children develop the strength of character to be active bystanders when they see it modeled at home.
We can model that for our kids, and we can also reform systems to be friendlier to whistleblowers, both anonymous and named. We need to continue to glorify the courageous, cultivate empathy and shame the complicit.
We can also learn from the mysterious behavior of whales, and choose to band together in the face of danger.