Why Some People are Able to Stand Up to a Bully

Why Some People are Able to Stand Up to a Bully

 By Jim Windell

             Since the presidential election on November 3, 2020, we have seen the President of the United States use his office and his political and personal power to cajole, influence and bully political leaders, lawmakers and citizens to support his efforts to overturn the election he lost. Some of the people he put tremendous pressure on – such as both the governor and the secretary of state of Georgia – stood up to his intense bullying and threats. Others – such as many Republican congressman – caved to the pressure.

            In the face of bullying and public embarrassment, some people stay silent. Some go along with the bully. Some call out the bully for bad behavior. What’s the difference between those who can withstand criticism, ostracism and even potential political or personal ruin and those who buckle?

           Catherine A. Sanderson, the Poler Family Professor and Chair of Psychology at Amherst College and the author of a recent book titled “Why We Act: Turning Bystanders into Moral Rebels,” has answers to this question. Writing in The Conversation, the online newsletter of informed opinions, Sanderson first of all says that the people who speak up and call out bad behavior are moral rebels. These are people who have the courage to stand up and say that something is wrong even though it will cost them.

           In a 2020 interview in the Amherst Magazine, Sanderson says that a moral rebel is someone “who feels comfortable, or at least willing, to call out bad behavior, even when that means defying or standing up to people around them.” Furthermore,  she goes on to say that these moral rebels are better able to buck social norms and speak out in the face of bad behavior, whether it’s sexual misconduct, or a racist slur, or corporate fraud. Or bullying by the President.

           But who are these moral rebels and what are common traits among them?

           Sanderson says that moral rebels generally feel good about themselves. “They tend to have high self-esteem and to feel confident about their own judgment, values and ability,” she writes in The Conversation. She also points out that they have a tendency to believe that their own views are superior to others and, consequently, they feel they have a social responsibility to share those beliefs.

           In addition, moral rebels are less socially inhibited than others. They don’t worry about feeling embarrassed or having an awkward interaction. Also, she says, “They are far less concerned about conforming to the crowd.” They are not trying to fit in so they can more comfortably choose to do what is right – rather than what will earn them approval from others.

           Sanderson indicates that there in research in neuroscience that reveals that people’s ability to stand up to social influence is reflected in anatomical differences in the brain. “People who are more concerned about fitting in show more gray matter volume in one particular part of the brain, the lateral frontal cortex. This area right behind your eyebrows creates memories of events that led to negative outcomes. It helps guide you away from things you want to avoid the next time around – such as being rejected by your group,” she writes.

           On the other hand, people who are more concerned about conforming to their group also show more activity in two other brain circuits. One that responds to social pain – like when you experience rejection – and another that tries to understand others’ thoughts and feelings. As Dr. Sanderson puts it, “In other words, those who feel worst when excluded by their group try the hardest to fit in.”

           In the Amherst Magazine interview, Sanderson was asked if moral rebels are born that way and if they can be created. Her response was:

           “…I think the answers are basically yes and yes. Some people are more naturally able to be moral rebels. Moral rebels seem to be less socially inhibited—they don’t worry so much about what others think or feel about them, and that makes it easier to speak up. They also tend to have high empathy, so they’re pretty good at putting themselves in somebody else’s shoes. But, importantly, I think it’s also something that we can train. As one example that is near and dear to me, as the mom of a 16-year-old girl who’s very argumentative, research has shown that children who argue with their moms, in particular, seem to be better at standing up to peer pressure. Researchers theorize that is because you get good at practicing arguing and speaking your mind and sharing your point by doing it at home. That skill then translates to social situations—a finding that I take a lot of solace and hope in.”

           To read the article in The Conversation, click here.

           To read the Amherst Magazine article, click here.



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