Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The diminishing age of consequence

It may just be that I am becoming a grumpy old man but the idea of accountability seems to have disappeared from modern life. Perhaps told age has eroded my tolerance to the thinness of a battery egg shell,  like Clint Eastwood in that wonderful movie Gran Torino.

The recent incident involving Kurtly Beale has brought this into sharp focus for me and I’ve been grappling with notions of values and personal responsibility for a week or so now. Like others, I am just gobsmacked that Australian Rugby would allow Beale back into the Australian side at all, let alone so quickly, after his atrocious behavior. Sending a disgusting and denigrating text to a work colleague would result in instant dismissal in any workplace with no parole. Not only did Beale get parole, it was cynically foreshortened. So, off goes Beale for a European holiday.

It hardly needs me to point out the message that this sends, especially young people, about values, about the way we can treat other people. It appears that it’s is OK to abuse someone in a way that is likely to damage them irreparably. That he is a man abusing a woman is an even more terrible reflection of our societal values, given he has been reprieved from all responsibility. The fact he copped a fine misses the point completely. In any case, $45,000 is nothing for a man of his financial status.

One of the topics covered in psychology 101 is the shaping of human behavior, how we learn. It is a terribly complex process but one of the simplest ways we learn is by understanding consequences. If your behavior is rewarded, or you see others rewarded for their behavior, then you are more likely to repeat that behaviour If reward is removed then a behaviour will be avoided of can be extinguished. We learn that there are consequences for what we do. One of the most powerful ways we learn is through the approval or disapproval of those people who are significant to us.

In this way we find out about what’s right and what’s wrong. If it all works out well we learn what it takes to live in harmony with other people, we find that empathy for others is a valuable tool in relationships, that caring is nice. Of course there is that 2 or 3 percent of people that never get it and turn out to be psychopaths. The rest of us are shaped by the ways others respond to us and how we feel about what we are doing.

Vicarious learning is responsible for shaping a lot of our behavior. We learn by watching others and how they get along when they do something. Again, it is usually most powerful when it involves people we are close to or admire. Parents are obviously big determinants of behavior in their children. But, other relatives, work colleagues, bosses, friends and, yes, celebrities can model our behavior too.

Before the next bit let me be clear that physical or other abusive forms of punishment are very poor at shaping behavior, at least in the long term. You’ll get compliance but not a change in behavior or attitude. All we do when we do this is teach someone to be similarly violent or abusive. If you don’t want to believe me then please look at the evidence. It is overwhelming that physical punishment is not a deterrent or a game changer.

But, consequences are critical. I have seen many parents shake their heads at the selfish antics of their children, people look totally confused when their partner leaves them, be angry at their inability to get a promotion, or depressed that no-one seems to like them. Many of them failed to understand the consequences of not understanding consequences.

It’s the same in workplaces. Even in this age of apparent enlightenment we see bullying behavior such as that exhibited by Beale. In many cases the consequences are minimal, if there any at all. Bullying remains a critical issue in many organisations. But also endemic are failures of leadership, a failure to live up to common values such as honesty and integrity, and lack of engagement. Similarly, we endorse the vapid behavior of our politicians, their dishonesty, their self-interest, their disingenuousness. Our news media has become morally bankrupt, controlled as they are by self-interest. The truth is a leaf on the wind.

Our silences, our lack of outrage, is deafening and it provides the endorsement, the consequences of bad behavior.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Bullies: I know who You Are

You don’t like yourself, even though this is not obvious to you. You think that it’s others who don’t come up to the mark, who are inadequate. This is called projection and is a common psychological phenomenon used by humans to protect their sense of self. We ‘project’ what we don’t like about ourselves onto others, like a movie projector. Your sense of self (what we call ego strength) is very fragile and you are easily offended because your anxiety about being found out is very close to the surface.

You’re not aware of your deep-seated anger, your resentment. It drives much of what you do and has shaped your personality. You may overtly display your anger towards others although this is more common in young people. As an adult you have learned that this meets with disapproval from others and can get you in hot water. However, you may still try and run cyclists off the road or display your aggression inappropriately on the sports field. Hurting others helps release your anger and makes you feel better.

Mostly, though, you are much more subtle at putting people down with the well-placed cutting phrase, dismissive guesture, reputation eroding gossip, passive-aggressive behaviour, and manipulation. Many of you like to control others, which may be quite overt or very subtle. You may even quietly suggest that others like what you like, insist that your partner wears what you want, and for them to behave in particular ways. You force them into an image of yourself: it makes you feel better about yourself.

As well as often being a good manipulator one of your other skills is working out who are vulnerable people and singling them out. Even more astounding is your ability to work out what sorts of things will hurt each person you find to pick on. You’ve learned these skills over a long period of time, maybe from childhood.

You have very little empathy towards others. You don’t feel what others feel and therefore don’t really care if someone is sad, intimidated, hurting. You think you do but this is an act to yourself and the outside world-its what you think should be felt but you don’t really know the emotion at all. You think that people get what they deserve and that’s your rationale for bullying, intimidating and controlling others. If they can’t fight back then why should you worry? Survival of the fittest is your mantra.

One way of catching you out is to criticize you in some small way and watch your reaction. You often have more than your fair share of narcissism. Criticism strikes at the heart of how you feel about yourself. Your ego is so fragile that any criticism reminds you of how much you despise yourself.

You may eventually obtain insight into your behaviour and then change. This may be brought about as you come to understand that you behaviour is hurting yourself as much as others. You may work out that it is more rewarding to be nice to people, although it can be a hard road learning these skills. It can take years for you to heal yourself. Along the way it has probably taken a lot of brave people to stand up to you, to expose you and refuse to allow you to undermine them. People who have a stronger sense of self, an ability to like themselves, to be satisfied with who they are. You yearn to be like them but don’t consciously know this. Instead you avoid them until you can ignore them no longer.

There are not many aging bullies, which gives some support for the capacity of humans to learn.