Earlier this month, Swedish furniture giant IKEA made its contribution to anti-bullyism (my preferred term for the anti-bullying cause), the iconic social movement of the 21st century. It publicized a video of a social science experiment that is deceptive and will end up intensifying the very problem it is intending to solve.
The corporate world loves to show that it is contributing not only to the wealth of its stockholders but also to the betterment of the world. The safest cause to support is the universally popular anti-bullyism, readily embraced by people of all races, religions, nationalities, sexual orientations and political persuasions. We all naturally detest our bullies and would like society to rid us of these evil beings lurking among us. As long as a corporation declares its anti-bullying stand, its tactics will be applauded.
Corporations are not experts in solving the bullying problem
The problem is that corporations, like the orthodox, academic field of bullying that informs their anti-bullying activities, haven't figured out the solution to bullying. Knowing of no good alternative, they continue to engage in well-intentioned but counterproductive anti-bullying tactics that fuel the international bullying epidemic.
Half-a-year ago, Burger King, aided by its formidable advertising know-how and budget, made headlines throughout the world with a video, based on a social science experiment carried out in a Burger King joint, promoting the idea that bystander intervention is the solution to bullying. But not only has research failed to demonstrate that bystander intervention is a reliable solution to bullying, the Burger King experiment actually corroborated that victims cannot rely on bystanders to save them from bullying.
Following suit, IKEA entered the anti-bullying arena by disseminating its own advertising-agency-driven anti-bullying social science experiment. In a school in the United Arab Emirates (yes, the anti-bully virus has been spreading to the entire world), one potted plant is subjected to a non-stop recording of complimentary, supportive statements while an identical plant is subjected to an insulting, hostile recording. After 30 days, the complimented plant has flourished, while the bullied plant has wilted.
There are two major problems with this video campaign. One is that it promotes fraud.
Bias and even outright fraud in scientific research are all-too-common phenomena that have been decried extensively in recent decades by academia and the major news media. Bias and fraud impede the search for truth and have plagued the social sciences in particular, because it is difficult for researchers to be truly objective about the behaviour and motivations of their own species. Bias and fraud are even more prevalent when the researchers have vested interests – such as money, professional prestige, and tenure – in the results of their research.
The IKEA experiment was rigged, as most of the commenters on YouTube astutely observed. It was not carried out by an impartial research team but by an advertising agency hired to create a powerful social service product to enhance the IKEA image. The results of the experiment needed to be dramatic and to be guaranteed in advance. As some commenters noted, Myth Busters has already tested and dispelled the hypothesis underlying the IKEA experiment. The following is the summary of the Myth Buster findings:
Seven small greenhouses were set up on the M5 Industries roof. Four were set up with stereos playing endlessly looping recordings (as having the MythBusters actually talk to the plants could contaminate the samples with their expelled carbon dioxide): Two of negative speech, two of positive speech (Kari and Scottie each made one positive and one negative soundtrack), a fifth with classical music and a sixth with intense death metal music. A seventh greenhouse, used as a control sample, had no stereo. The greenhouses with the recordings of speech grew better than the control, regardless of whether such talk was kind or angry. The plants in the greenhouse with the recording of classical music grew better, while the plants in the greenhouse with the recording of intense death metal grew best of all.
The plants didn't care whether they were complimented or insulted. They just liked sound. And they liked intense death metal the best.
While few people would encourage fraud in research, IKEA is doing precisely that. They are trying to convince us what we should do based on fabricated results. Is that ethical? Do we want researchers to publish phony results in order to impose their pre-determined conclusions upon the rest of society? If IKEA can get away with it – in a film purporting to promote moral behavior – and even be applauded for doing so by the public, why shouldn’t the rest of us engage in deception?
The second – and bigger – problem with the IKEA video is that it promotes emotional fragility, feeding the growth of the bullying epidemic.
If the IKEA video would prevent bullying and misery while promoting resilience and happiness, one might argue that the virtuous ends justify the deceptive means. But instead, the IKEA video will accomplish the opposite.
As Einstein famously said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
The goal of the IKEA ad is to reduce bullying by raising awareness of the deadliness of insults. The assumption is that if kids only knew how harmful negative words were, they would stop using them and schools will become bully-free, happy places.
But there is nothing new about this tactic. It’s been the most basic and time-honoured message of anti-bullyism. It's behind the popular “crumpled paper” bullying exercise. It's behind the almost universal condemnation of the traditional slogan, “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never harm me,” and its replacement with, “but words can scar me forever/words can kill me.” This message has been intensifying the bullying epidemic. Sending the message out again, using plants as the victims of bullying in a slick, expensive video, is not going to turn a counterproductive message into a productive one.
Two reasons for the failure
There are two reasons for the failure of the “harmful-words” message to reduce bullying. One is that people don’t think they are bullies. Humans have an amazing ability to justify their negative behaviour, to see themselves as the “good guys” and others as the “bad guys.” When we insult someone, we have convinced ourselves that the person deserves the insult. We are even likely to see ourselves as a victim of the one we are insulting, which is why we are insulting them.
That’s why people, including ardent anti-bullying advocates, are so ready to insult Donald Trump while engaging in the very behaviour they condemn in him. It's why so many people leave personally insulting comments to my articles that threaten their beloved beliefs about bullying. So when kids hear the message of how harmful words are, they rarely think it means they need to stop insulting others, but that others need to stop insulting them. Thus, the message falls on deaf ears.
And here is the second reason. Why do kids become victims of verbal bullying, that is, of repeated insults by the same individuals? It’s because they get upset by insults. This has been understood by wise humans from time immemorial, and it’s the idea underlying the “sticks and stones” slogan. It’s also behind the statement that Eleanor Roosevelt is famous for: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
It is practically impossible to continue insulting someone who isn’t getting upset by the insults. If you are not sure of this, watch my video titled “The Idiot Game”.
You can also try it out for yourself. Ask someone to insult you and not to let you stop them. First, get angry and insist they stop. Then do a second trial and calmly let them insult you all they want. You will experience the vast difference between your two opposing responses to insults.
The solution to bullying is therefore paradoxical. If you try to stop people from insulting you, they want to continue. If you permit them to insult you, they feel foolish and frustrated and want to stop.
But what are kids being taught today? That insults are so destructive that not only can they hurt people, who are capable of comprehending the nasty words, they can even kill brainless plants that aren't. Kids are being taught that the revered Mrs. Roosevelt was wrong – that others can, indeed, make them feel inferior without their consent.
When kids believe the meme that they have no choice but to be hurt by insults, what happens? They get terribly upset when insulted. And what happens when they get terribly upset? They get insulted even more! They become victims of relentless verbal bullying.
And that’s why the bullying epidemic has been growing during the very period that society has been teaching kids how harmful insults are.
Until we go back to teaching the meaning of the original “sticks and stones” slogan, we will increase the emotional fragility of our children and the numbers of victims of relentless bullying – kids who are suffering terribly and may even contemplate violence against others and/or themselves.
If IKEA truly wants to spend its public service money to reduce bullying, it needs to stop relying on the enfeebling teachings of anti-bullyism and get back to the timeless wisdom that enhances resilience.
IKEA executives, if you are reading this article, please have your social advocacy division contact me. I will put your corporation on the right track.
An honest experiment that reveals what works
If children want a bullying experiment that doesn't require fraud to reveal what works, they can conduct the one on my website. If it is carried out by a child that is being verbally bullied, s/he will learn the solution. And if a student conducts it with all classmates as subjects, s/he will transform the entire class. Bullying will drop dramatically and the students will become resilient to insults.
Izzy Kalman has been a school psychologist specializing in bullying for four decades, and authors a Psychology Today blog: Resilience to Bullying.