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Bullying as Empathy Gone Wrong

Replace bullying with equity, diversity, and inclusion.

Key points

  • Bullying is usually understood to be the opposite of empathy, but what if it was more complicated?
  • Research shows we have more empathy for those who resemble us.
  • Our brains may default to putting those with differences into the "out-group."

From a brain perspective, one way to understand the bullying mindset that fuels racism, misogyny, or anti-Semitism is as empathy gone wrong. To remind you, empathy is when you strive to walk in someone else’s shoes. You try to see the world through their lens. You make an effort to imagine how they might feel and think. You want to figure out what they intend.

Racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, bullying, and even child abuse are grounded in a profound lack of empathy. Unfair, cruel, targeted, and dehumanizing acts occur when empathy is blocked and natural human bonds are severed. As seen tragically throughout history, and in the present day, it is well-documented that brains can be trained from childhood to put others into the “out-group” where their natural empathy is erased.

What’s also worrisome is newer neuroscientific research into the ways brains may put others into the out-group even when they have not been conditioned by racist, misogynist, or anti-Semitic conditioning. Putting others into the out-group is linked to the way in which our empathy was shaped by evolution and it is something we need to be conscious of in 21st-century organizations. It is why equity, diversity, and inclusion are healthy antidotes to an outdated system.

How does empathy start and end in the brain?

Nhil Banda/Pixabay
Source: Nhil Banda/Pixabay

The brains of babies and children are wired to read adults' facial expressions, watch their gestures, and pick up on the nuances in their tone of voice. Why? Because they are dependent for many years and need to anticipate adult behaviors if they want to flourish and have their needs met.

Empathy is one of the brain’s survival strategies. Babies’ brains are wired for empathy and within even hours of birth they will show attention to adult facial expressions and even strive to imitate them. Infants and children who are bullied or abused can lose their empathy, identify with the aggressor, and begin bullying others. Research describes these victim-bullies as “un-empathic,” demonstrating “callous-unemotional traits.”

Callous-unemotional responses are related to psychopathy, which is characterized by low empathy and guilt. Bullying behaviours are the opposite of “cognitive and affective empathy.” Cognitive empathy is when you try to think from the other’s point of view. Affective empathy is when you strive to feel what their emotional state might be.

In contrast to those who are bullying, Jolliffe and Farrington found that upstanders or those who defend targets score “high on cognitive and affective empathy.” Empathy is correlated in research with prosocial behaviours.

Research by Stavrinides et al. reveals that if we want organizational culture to have less bullying, we need to invest in developing affective empathy. Put another way, empathy is documented to create a barrier against future bullying. Rather than thinking about equity, diversity, and inclusion as interventions for fairness, we could also think about them as ways to infuse culture with empathy.

Unfairness or favouritism, humiliation, exclusion, fear, or threat are all bullying behaviours and they are in many ways the opposite of equity, diversity, and inclusion. In other words, these prosocial behaviours lead to empathic organizational cultures rather than bullying ones.

Empathy can lead us astray

Richard Revel/Pixabay
Source: Richard Revel/Pixabay

Empathy from a brain perspective has some challenges, however. Empathy expert Helen Reiss explains that empathy was developed by evolution to have “tribal” tendencies, which was a survival strategy in ancient times. Clearly, it no longer serves a healthy organizational culture. Reiss discusses the unfortunate fact that our brain has more empathy for someone who resembles us and shares our experience. If we want non-bullying cultures where we foreground equity, diversity, and inclusion, this is an obvious stumbling block.

Studies show that if you observe someone from your “tribe” perform an act, you will see it differently from the identical act done by someone in the “out-group.” Imagine the feeling of injustice at school, work, or sports when you equal or outperform a peer only to find that you are assessed according to a different set of criteria. This injustice could well be experienced as a sense of being bullied, but those unfairly assessing may not even know that their brains are programmed this way.

In psychological research that draws on neuroscience, racism is understood according to this “in-group bias.” This is another way to think about putting those who are different from us into the “out-group,” which is happening on a brain level and may not be even recognized. Understanding in-group and out-group is a vital survival strategy from a brain point of view as it would be key in a fight or battle. Yet in society, this same brain mechanism can and does lead to harmful, unjust bullying behaviours.

Organizations can address this brain mechanism by educating leaders, HR, and employees on how empathy is wired in the brain to be potentially unfair, refuse otherness, and exclude or put those with differences into the “out-group.” It’s a whole new way to think about unconscious bias or in-group bias. Having a brain-informed approach and shared vocabulary can help us work with our evolution-shaped brains in order to have healthy, happy, high-performing 21st-century organizations with cultures that ensure equity, diversity, and inclusion.


Jolliffe D., & Farrington D. (2011). Is low empathy related to bullying after controlling for individual and social background variables? Journal of Adolescence, 34, 59–71. PubMed.

Reiss, H. (2018). Empathy Effect. Louisville, CO: Sounds True.

Stavrinides P., Georgiou S., & Theofanous V. (2010). Bullying and empathy. Educational Psychology, 30, 793–802.

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