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Saturday, July 23, 2005

The Economics of Bullies and Victims

It's the weekend, so this post is a bit different from the usual fare.

The Unknown Son is likely to be "bully bait" when he gets a bit older - at six, he's small for his age (not surprising - both parents are well below average height). In addition, for the last couple of years, he's been dealing with some medical issues that further stunted his growth, caused him to miss some of the socialization that naturally comes from spending time on the playground, and left him less than physically gifted. Finally, he's a bit of a nerd, like his father.

So, I read this post by Joanne Jacobs titled How to stop a bully with interest:
Our neighbor . . . taught Christopher "how to fight," which in Christopher's case meant how to defend himself in a very loud voice accompanied by an equally loud glare & the all-important step forward.

There was also a whole dramatic Second Act Christopher was supposed to launch into if the bully dared to mouth off after he'd been Warned. It was basically Robert DeNiro for the 2nd grade. Christopher spent the afternoon running through the whole thing with the neighbor and his son, and then we rehearsed him at home.

I still remember a kid in third grade named Ronnie. He was the only third grader who shaved (after all, he was seventeen). He lived halfway between my house and the school. Several times a week he would "escort" me as far as his house and would literally kick my A## for several blocks. And yes, I'm using the "figuratively" correctly - every few steps he would actually kick me.

It was solved the traditional way, by getting my older brother (and to several of his friends) to administer some "attitude readjustment".

Since I try to apply economics to everything possible, I though I'd analyze Joanne's strategy from an economics framework. This means looking at the cost-benefit tradeoffs involved.

  • First, an economist would say that a bully bullies because he gets some benefit from it. In Jacobs' piece, she notes that bullies choose targets that cry easily so that they get the biggest "bang for the buck" (i.e. the highest payoff per unit of effort expended). By not backing down, you decrease the bully's payoff.
  • Second, by announcing that you're going to fight back, you increse the bully's "cost" of bullying. It's not necessary to be able to beat the bully (in all likelihood you won't - he's bigger and/or stronger than you, and more used to fighting). But, at least you increase the cost.
  • Finally, there's the all-important "don't back away" from the the bully. Instead, as you tell them you're not going to meekly take it, you should step forward towards them. This functions as a credible "signal" that you're willing to fight. Like the kid in Jacob's article says "There are 5 of you and 1 of me, so you can stuff me in a garbage can if you want to. But I'm not the only one coming out of this with bruises." After all, if you told them that you were going to fight back but kept running, they wouldn't believe you.
These steps won't necessarily prevent bullying. But they will decrease the likelihood of being licked on by all but the most serious bullies. For those cases, also send your kids to martial arts classes. It will not only make them more able to defend themselves in the cases where the bullies aren't deterred, but will also give them the confidence to pull off the steps above - particularly the all important third one. So, fights are less likely to take place.

The bottom line - if the cost of bullying (from the bully's perspective) increases and the benefit decreases, the bully will "buy" less of the "good". In this case, this means that he'll engage in less bullying of your kid.

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