Ellen Langer

Who among us hasn’t at one time or the other experienced fear, humiliation, degradation at the hand of someone toward whom we were vulnerable? I was just conned out of a great deal of money by someone my colleague Josh Buckholtz, who studies psychopaths, said sounded like a quintessential member of that class. It truly scared me. It also raised the question for me of how do you get up after being thrown for the proverbial loop. It was actually much easier than most would imagine.

Gabriel Hammond and I are doing research on bullying, so the antidote was salient for me. In that work, the main idea occurred to us when we thought about what many parents might tell their children when they thought they were doing the bullying. “It’s not nice to pick on people less strong than you are.” We think this actually may increase the tendency to bully. Based on this reasoning, each instance of bullying instantiates at least the relative strength of the bully. What if young people were more appropriately told that bullying is a sign of weakness. No one who is successful and has it all together bullies. If everyone recognized this, there would be nothing in it for the bully to bully. Each attempt would be an admission of weakness.

Whether young or old, the same is true throughout our lives. Whenever we feel that we’ve just been kicked in the stomach or when someone simply tries to make us feel small, or takes advantage of us in any way, we have an alternative to feeling like a victim. No one truly strong and successful would behave that way. Recognizing it as weakness is empowering. I feel sorry for the bully, the con man, and actually even the psychopath.