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Anatomy of Child Bullying in Japan 4: Bullying Prevention (1): Preventing Bullying Caused by "Negative Conformity"

To prevent bullying, it is important to encourage children in groups to eliminate possible causes of bullying. In this report, I will explain how to develop groups that can prevent “negative conformity,” one of the causes of bullying. Negative conformity is a type of social influence in which children change their views and attitudes to fit in with more active and powerful children or authoritative teachers. Children who do not give in to conformity will become the targets of bullying. I will also introduce some socio-psychological studies on conformity on video. The pressure to conform becomes very strong when everyone agrees except one. To eliminate such negative conformity, we need to teach children, when they are in groups, that each of them has different characteristics and such differences should be respected as part of their personality. I will briefly explain the structural group encounter method to create such groups of children.

bullying, school, classroom, teacher, bullying prevention, conformity, differences, mutual esteem, structured group encounter, Shinkichi Sugimori

Anatomy of Child Bullying in Japan

In the previous report, I discussed how the leadership of adults on children (in the case of school children, the leadership of teachers) relates to the occurrence of bullying. There are two types of teachers' leadership behavior, that is, instructional behavior (establishing rules and schemes among children or Performance function) and relationship-building behavior (a relationship between teachers and children, and a relationship among children or Maintenance function). If both types of behavior are strong, or only relationship-building behavior is strong, teachers can create a good atmosphere in the classroom. In contrast, if both types are weak, classroom collapse and bullying are often seen. Why?

One of the reasons why the leadership of teachers affects the atmosphere of the classroom is that children in their early years do not have enough skills to create a stable and coherent group on their own. Teachers can help to develop a fun and lively atmosphere in the classroom if they succeed in facilitating mutual esteem, classroom rules and schemes among children. If they fail to create a system of good discipline or foster a humane environment in the classroom, it is highly likely to cause a negative cycle of behavior where children display aggressive behavior or acts that threaten the stability of the group, which leads to retaliation and further negative behavior. Stronger children force others to conform with them, hence resulting in more bullying. In a classroom with less discipline and mutual esteem, we often find children being socially isolated. At the same time, we see some children doing what they want to do, communicating with whom they want, or even being unable to follow or understand classroom rules. Naturally enough, chaos and bullying are more likely to occur in such a classroom.

"Negative conformity" and bullying

One of the causes of bullying is an environment that eliminates different opinions and views by driving into isolation those children, who do not agree with the powerful individuals in the group (i.e., active children, popular children because they are good at studying and sports, and authoritative teachers). Everyone has the fear of being socially isolated. In particular, susceptibility to this kind of peer pressure increases in early adolescence. If you cannot express your opinion freely, instead, trying to match yourself to stronger opinions and eliminate people with different views and attitudes, then you are under the influence of "negative conformity." In a group with negative conformity, some children who are under the stress of keeping silent dislike those who can speak out straightforwardly in public.

In a sense, we can say that preventing bullying means preventing "negative conformity." Since there have been socio-psychological studies on conformity ("con" means "with" and "form" means "shape"; therefore, conformity means behaving in the same way that most other people behave) over the years, I would like to explain a bit more about the concept of conformity. Japanese people are often said to be conformist as there is a culture of sensing the atmosphere in Japan. However, it is reported that conformity occurs even in the countries of individualism such as the US and Europe, where there is a tendency for people to agree, even when they think only they are right, with the majority's opinions and attitudes.

Conformity experiments

Conformity can be found in the events of everyday life. For example, when we stand in elevators, we normally face the door. It is a matter of personal choice which side of the wall we face. However, what will you do if people getting into the elevator one by one stand with their backs to the door, and only you stand facing the door? Here, please refer to a video clip of a conformity experiment conducted in the US, a country of freedom, by Solomon Asch, an American psychologist well known for his pioneering conformity experiments. Asch created this video in 1962 at request of a television company.

As you will see, there is a person in an elevator facing the door. He did not mind when the first person (one of the "confederates" knowing the true aim of the experiment) got into the elevator and stood with his back to the door. However, he started to show his uneasiness when the second person stood in the same way. When the number of the people standing with their backs to the door increased to three, he finally changed his direction and faced to the wall. In the situation "one vs. others (especially the number of people reaches three or more)," the pressure to conform becomes very strong.

The person was not forced to face the wall nor would he have received punishment if he had not done so, but he could not resist the pressure to conform. As you see, the majority's behavior is likely to become an implicit rule. In the case of bullying, the pressure to conform is far more serious, as children are ordered, verbally, to conform, and if they do not, they are likely to receive punishment.

In fact, the pressure to conform can be both positive and negative, and bullying is the negative use of conformity. It has been fifty years since Asch's experiment, but I am investigating further to find similar reports on additional experiments conducted recently. Please see the video.

Superficial conformity and conformity with a distortion of perception

Please refer to a video clip of Asch's first experiment here. Participants were shown a card with a line on it, followed by a card with three lines of varying length on it. Then, they were asked to say aloud, which line matched the line on the first card in length. The question was simple and easy to answer. In each session of the experiment, the "real" participant was a person answering fifth (the last to respond), and others were "confederates" who, as in the elevator experiment, knew the true aim of the experiment. For the first two questions, the confederates gave the correct answer, but from the third question they all gave the same wrong answers (after 58 seconds had passed from the start). The real participant changed his answer to respond in the same way as the confederates, even though he knew the answer was wrong. In this experiment, 37 percent of the "real" participants conformed to the confederates. However, under different conditions such as where one of the confederates gave the correct answer (the third confederate gave the correct answer and the real participant did the same: after 2 minutes 27 seconds had passed from the start), and where the real participants (entering the room later: after 3 minutes 10 seconds had passed from the start) were asked to write down their answers while others called theirs out, conformity rates became very low.

As these experiments show, participants conformed to the group to avoid standing out, although they knew the group was wrong. This is a superficial type of conformity (as explained after 2 minutes had passed from the start for 10 seconds). On the other hand, some participants actually believed that the confederates' incorrect answers were true. In this case, conformity was caused by a distortion of perception (as explained after one minute 30 seconds had passed from the start for 10 seconds).

Bullying can be defined as eliminating or attacking children who do not agree with the majority's opinions and behavior. Children are reluctantly involved in bullying because they face the pressure of conformity, although deep down they hate to bully someone and wish to express their own opinions. But such conformity is, in many cases, superficial or caused by a distortion of perception.

Therefore, if we successfully encourage children to understand and respect the differences between one another, we can reduce the occurrence of "negative conformity," and thus preventing bullying.

How to develop within a group of children an attitude of respect for the differences occurring between them

How then can we encourage children to understand and respect the differences between one another?

Mayumi Kashima (currently associate professor in Kochi University) applies "structured group encounter," one of the methods of clinical group psychology used to foster a bully-free classroom. She has been noted for her skills to create bully free classrooms while working as a science teacher at junior high school. By using the structured group encounter method, she supported her students, who first seemed disconnected, in gradually recognizing the diversity of opinions and views and respecting differences between them (this was introduced by NHK in its TV program "The Professional's Tools" in 2007).

For example, in the group work of "Hot-air balloon of rights," Kashima asked her students to think about a situation in which "You are on a hot-air balloon and the balloon is falling. You need to remove some of the weight (your rights). Start to remove the rights in order of least importance". Kashima showed ten different rights such as "Right to breathe clean air" and "right to have your own room." Prioritizing the importance of these rights depends on the students' personality and it is rather an easy task for them to express their own rights freely. They feel less peer-group pressure and less influence of powerful opinions: thus, negative conformity is less likely to happen. This kind of discussion eventually helps students recognize and accept differences between them. There are also many other ways to encourage children to build a good relationship between them.

In the next report, I will discuss how to recognize the SOS signs from bullied children, in order to prevent the development of bullying behaviors.

Related article

"Anatomy of Japanese Bullying"


report_sugimori_shinkichi.jpg Dr. Sugimori is Professor of Social Psychology at Tokyo Gakugei University, conducting research on group psychology (evaluation of team working, psychology in the citizen judge system, and effects of experiential activities) as well as risk psychology, from the standpoint of cultural social psychology focusing on social relations between individuals and groups. He also serves as Board Member of the Japanese Society for Law and Psychology; Executive Board Member of the Society for Field-Culture Education; Board Member of the Youth Friendship Association; Councilor of the Outward Bound Japan; Researcher of the Center for Research on Educational Testing; Board Member of the Children Institute for the Future, Tokyo Gakugei University; Chairman of the Accreditation Committee, Japan Association for Certifying and Training Educational Specialists.
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