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Dr. Gregory Jantz, Ph.D. Headshot

Bullying the Bullies: The Public Defense of Karen Klein

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Being a therapist, it's impossible for me not to comment on the current video-du-jour, better known on YouTube as "Making the Bus Monitor Cry". This 10-minute video, presumably first posted by one of the kids involved, is vastly uncomfortable to watch, with a group of seventh-grade boys using obscenity-laced harassment against an elderly female bus monitor as a vehicle to joke, laugh and, apparently, enjoy themselves on the last day of school. Since the video has gone viral, Karen Klein, the bus monitor, is experiencing her 15 minutes of fame, with an offer by an airline to fly her and several others free to Disneyland. She is also on track to net a minimum of several hundred thousands of dollars through donations to a Canadian website pouring in from around the world by people outraged at her treatment. I wish that was all there was to this story -- grandmother of eight harassed by middle-schoolers goes to Disneyland with lots of money thanks to the kindness of strangers.

Some of the strangers affected by this story, however, are acting anything but kind. According to the police captain in Greece, N.Y, where the incident took place, the boys and their families are receiving threats. "We have a cell phone of one of the boys and he's received more than a thousand missed calls and more than a thousand text messages threatening him. Threats to overcome threats do no good."

Threats to overcome threats do no good, but threats to express how ticked off you are apparently do some good for some people, or there wouldn't be thousands making those threats. These expressions of outrage don't even have to be directed at the appropriate people. One unfortunate middle-schooler, wrongly identified as taking part in the verbal abuse of Karen Klein, also received death threats, according to his mother, who said her employer had calls saying she should be fired for poor parenting. "This is going too far," the mother said. "This is no better than the kids who did that on the bus." When the ground-swell of outrage builds to such frenzy, the guilty and the innocent can both become inundated.

Why is that? Why are we collectively so quick to judge? How can people be so wrong when trying to do something right? The answer is, as people, we are hard-wired to jump to conclusions, whether those conclusions are accurate or not.

Recently, I read an article by Jonathan Lehrer on cognitive bias. Cognitive bias is just another way of saying that people are blinded to the mistakes they make when interpreting information; you can see the mistakes of others but have a much harder time recognizing your own errors. One of the ways cognitive bias shows up, according to Lehrer, is when people base their reactions on "a long list of mental shortcuts, which often leads them to make foolish decisions." Cognitive bias, he goes on to say, causes people to "default to the answer that requires the least mental effort." In the case of Karen Klein, a threat, for some people, is the answer that requires the least mental effort.

Another manifestation of cognitive bias is what's known as the "bandwagon effect." This is where people tend to believe or act in a certain way because others do. The bandwagon effect is classically illustrated by that group of seventh-grade boys, who, pack-like, joined together to attack the convenient, vulnerable object -- Karen Klein. It is paradoxical that the outrage provoked by such herd mentality should be answered back with herd mentality.

People jump to conclusions all the time because it's quick and easy. Disturbingly, it appears the smarter you are, the more susceptible you are to cognitive bias because the more convinced you are of your own infallibility. Reacting takes the least mental effort. Responding, however, requires additional time, effort and, more importantly, self-evaluation. When we simply react without thinking or factoring in our own capacity for error, we are acting like, well, seventh-graders.

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