Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 20, Issue 7;   February 12, 2020: Unrecognized Bullying: II

Unrecognized Bullying: II


Much workplace bullying goes unrecognized because of cognitive biases that can cause targets, bystanders, perpetrators, and supervisors of perpetrators not to notice bullying. Confirmation bias is one such cognitive bias.
Three gulls excluding a fourth

Three gulls excluding a fourth. Social isolation is a favored tactic of perpetrators probably, in part, because it can be difficult to detect by casual outside observers. Even when targets register complaints with authorities, the evidence they supply can seem subjective, delusional, and overly suspicious. Authorities receiving such complaints tend to dismiss them more often than is justified by the facts.

A variety of cognitive biases can cause targets, bystanders, perpetrators, and supervisors of perpetrators not to perceive bullying behavior as bullying. Because the relevant cognitive biases act differently on different people in different roles with respect to the bullying, the space to be explored is two-dimensional. One axis is the kind of cognitive bias. The other is the person's role relative to the bullying. That is, for each relevant bias, we can describe how it could affect each role.

That's a big project. Too big for a weekly newsletter or blog. But I can demonstrate the approach with one cognitive bias. This post explores the effects of confirmation bias [Nickerson 1998] on targets, bystanders, perpetrators, and supervisors of perpetrators.

How confirmation bias affects targets' perceptions of bullying
Consider the case of the supervisor bullying a subordinate. Targets tend to believe that supervisors supervise; that the supervisor's role is to guide the target's professional development and to provide resources, guidance, and support as needed for the target to carry out his or her responsibilities. In short, targets want to believe that supervisors are benevolent. For many subordinates, this belief is consistent with reality. But when a supervisor bullies a subordinate, a target's belief in supervisor benevolence can function as an inaccurate preconceived notion of the supervisor's agenda.
Confirmation bias then leads the target to search for evidence of benevolent behavior by the supervisor, and to reject evidence of bullying behavior. It thus raises the level of evidence necessary for targets to finally accept that their supervisors are bullying. Confirmation bias causes targets to interpret the bullying supervisor's behavior as "tough discipline" or even "tough love" instead of the abuse that it is.
How confirmation bias affects bystanders' perceptions of bullying
Bystanders are witnesses of bullying behavior who aren't themselves current targets of the perpetrator, and who haven't been targets of that perpetrator in recent memory. Bystanders do see what's happening — both the aggressive behavior of the perpetrator and the pain experienced by the target. Some bystanders recognize the behavior as bullying. But some do not. The question is: why do some bystanders fail to recognize bullying as such? For some bystanders, confirmation bias provides an answer.
Because most bystanders Cognitive biases can cause targets,
bystanders, supervisors of
perpetrators, and perpetrators
not to perceive bullying
behavior as bullying
of common bullying incidents are peers of the targets, let's consider that case. I'll refer to the target as Tracey (for Target), one of the bystanders as Brian (for Bystander), and the perpetrator as Phillip (for Perpetrator). Suppose Brian witnesses an incident in a meeting in which Phillip bullies Tracey. Feeling extreme discomfort, Brian doesn't want to intervene or even exit the meeting, because he fears that Phillip would interpret these acts as criticism. Brian fears that he might then become Phillip's next target.
So Brian keeps his counsel. He isn't proud of this, but he isn't aware of a safe alternative. Because he doesn't supervise Phillip, he feels no obligation to teach Phillip about manners or courtesy. He wants to believe that Phillip's behavior is harsh, tough, and maybe even rude, which enables Brian to see Phillip's behavior as something other than bullying. And it sets up a confirmation bias for Brian. He interprets everything he observes within a framework of rude behavior. Protected by confirmation bias, the question of bullying doesn't arise for Brian.
How confirmation bias affects supervisors of perpetrators
Some supervisors aren't perpetrators themselves, but they are meta-perpetrators. That is, they're willing to accept the "benefits" of having subordinates who, in turn, bully their subordinates or who bully their peers. I'll discuss meta-perpetrators briefly in the section below devoted to perpetrators. For now, let's focus on the nonperpetrating supervisor who has a perpetrator subordinate.
I'll refer to such a nonperpetrating supervisor as Olivia (for Oblivious). Confirmation bias can cause Olivia not to recognize as bullying the aggressive actions of the perpetrating subordinate, whom I'll call Phillip (for Perpetrator). Olivia wants to believe that Phillip's aggressive behavior is necessary to produce the results that Olivia so eagerly desires. Olivia is reluctant to recognize Phillip's behavior as bullying because she might then be obliged to intervene, and she fears that intervening could compromise Phillip's performance. Olivia wants to believe that Phillip's behavior is merely tough, rather than bullying. And so Phillip's bullying goes unrecognized.
How confirmation bias affects perpetrators
People who intentionally harm others are available in wondrous variety. Among these are people who harm others and who believe that doing so is a severe transgression. Some of these need a way of viewing their own behavior that protects them from charging themselves with bullying. They want to continue bullying while claiming to themselves that they aren't bullying. Tall order.
Confirmation bias to the rescue. It can work like this: "Bullying is bad. What I'm doing isn't bullying." That's the preconceived notion that forms the foundation of the confirmation bias. The perpetrator then searches for (and finds) definitions of bullying that don't fit the perpetrator's view of his or her own behavior. Any attribute will suffice. For example, a definition might require that the activity be repeated in a sustained campaign, while the perpetrator's pattern is to move from target to target after only one or two incidents. Or the definition might require physical abuse, while the perpetrator's pattern might consist of purely psychological abuse. Or the definition might require the physical presence of the perpetrator, while the perpetrator's pattern might involve directing others to carry out the abuse — an approach that makes our perpetrator a meta-perpetrator.
Confirmation bias thus serves to protect the perpetrator from his or her own self-condemnation for bullying, by excluding the perpetrator's actions from any class that could be called bullying.

Confirmation bias is just one example of a cognitive bias that can cause bullying to go unrecognized. Any cognitive bias that confirms our preconceptions can function in this way. Possible candidates include ingroup bias, the just-world hypothesis, the halo effect, and choice-supportive bias. Homework: pick one of these biases and work out how it can cause targets, perpetrators, bystanders, and supervisors of perpetrators not to notice bullying. First in this series  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Unintended Condescension: I  Next Issue

101 Tips for Targets of Workplace BulliesIs a workplace bully targeting you? Do you know what to do to end the bullying? Workplace bullying is so widespread that a 2014 survey indicated that 27% of American workers have experienced bullying firsthand, that 21% have witnessed it, and that 72% are aware that bullying happens. Yet, there are few laws to protect workers from bullies, and bullying is not a crime in most jurisdictions. 101 Tips for Targets of Workplace Bullies is filled with the insights targets of bullying need to find a way to survive, and then to finally end the bullying. Also available at Apple's iTunes store! Just . Order Now!


Comprehensive list of all citations from all editions of Point Lookout
[Nickerson 1998]
Raymond S. Nickerson. "Confirmation bias: A ubiquitous phenomenon in many guises," Review of General Psychology 2:2 (1998), 175-220. Available here. Retrieved 22 April 2021. Back

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