Trump, Hitler, and Me: How bullies are physiologically motivated to bully

07/20/2016 02:46 am ET Updated Sep 14, 2016

“What are you going to do if she smacks you in the face?” the drunk woman screeched at me across the dining table, “after all, you bullied her”.

I hate aggro drunks.

I wasn’t talking to the aggro drunk. I was talking to another woman who – upset but sober - was describing her tyrannical father’s bullying.

Trying to help, I was explaining the motivations behind her father’s confusing and destructive behavior. How and why bullies are motivated to bully. How people can relieve their own sense of inadequacy by dragging others down. How the effective, but unfortunately temporary, nature of the bully’s self-esteem quick-fix, drives the bully to keep bullying.

It’s not personal. If you are or have been bullied, it’s not due to any lack in you (which, sadly, is what many victims of bullying feel). Most people don’t realize that you cannot pacify a bully. Bullies don’t want to be pacified. Their need to bully is insatiable.

That’s the psychological explanation.

The psychophysiological explanation is that bullies are physiologically motivated to bully.

I hate bullies. Who doesn’t?

I was a bully.

For my upset but sober companion’s benefit, I illustrated the psychophysiology of bullying using my unfortunate personal history of having been a childhood bully.

I bullied a close friend for years. Not with physical bullying, but with relentless teasing - also known as psychological abuse.

Also known as ‘bullying with a smile’. This is the abuse that adds insult to injury. If the victim dares protest, they are further invalidated with accusations of excessive sensitivity; of not being able to take a joke. Lighten up!

Once my friend came to school in tears. I had tormented her to the point where she didn’t want to be at school. Shocked at how upset she was, I eased off with the teasing. Temporarily.

Aware that I teased my friend, I justified it as toughening her up - preparing her for the real world. Heck, I was doing her a favor.

I was appalled when I realized, decades later, that my ‘toughening-up’ constituted bullying.

Traumatized over the years by my own family’s bullying, I felt sick at the thought of how my own bullying may have had impacted my friend.

As I told the sober upset woman, I’d recently located my friend after 20 years of no contact. I’d profusely apologized for my bullying, and we’d arranged to talk the day after the dinner party. That’s where the aggro drunk jumped in – helpfully preparing me for my friend’s reaction.

I believe I bullied my friend because I was being bullied - by several family members.

At home I was on the receiving end of ongoing criticism, invalidation, and ridicule.

I don’t blame my family for how they treated me. The reasons people bully are only ever sad ones. Don’t get me wrong. I do hold them responsible - we are currently estranged as they haven’t yet learned to stop bullying. But I understand that they weren’t (and aren’t) consciously aware they bullied me. In the same way I wasn’t consciously aware I bullied my friend.

I understand denial. Everyone hates a bully. No one wants to be a bully. We can and do justify our behaviours that are incongruent with our self-identities.

While I don’t blame my family for bullying me, I hated it. So why was I bullying my friend?

There’s research supporting the idea that ‘the bullied’ are physiologically motivated to bully others.

A key player in this Shakespearean tragedy appears to be a stress hormone - cortisol.

Humans and other primates at the top of the social heap – alphas - tend to be low in stress hormones such as cortisol. Conversely, subordinates at the bottom of the social heap tend to be high in cortisol. I.e. social status is inversely correlated with cortisol levels; high status = low cortisol: low status = high cortisol.

You don’t want chronic, or long term, high levels of cortisol. It tends to suppress the immune system: its associated with a range of inflammatory disorders; increased risk of infection; and even some cancers. (see Shelden Cohen’s seminal work on the association between stress and immune function).

Generally, being at the bottom of the social heap – with its associated elevated cortisol - is bad for your health. And what’s bad for your health is bad for your chances of propagating your DNA.

What to do?

What you can do is decrease your elevated cortisol levels by increasing your social status.

And fortunately there’s an easier way to do this than taking on the alpha peeps.

You can bully other subordinates.

Typically after a defeat – whether a fight or a game of poker - humans experience a spike in cortisol. Losers acquire the unhealthy, high-cortisol hormonal profile of a subordinate animal. (There is a caveat that this effect is found in competitive people only.)

Conversely, after winning, competitive victors typically experience a drop in cortisol. The spoils of war include the healthy, low-cortisol hormonal profile of an alpha animal.

However, researchers found a sub-group of subordinate male primates who, unusually, had the hormonal profiles of alpha males.

The researchers observed these atypical low-cortisol subordinate males behaving differently from the other, more typical, high-cortisol subordinate males. The difference was that - after the atypical low-cortisol subordinates were beaten up by an alpha male - they were more likely to go pick a fight with another animal.

It appears as this sub-group of subordinate male primates were successfully passing on their high cortisol stress-batons by, essentially, kicking the dog after they get home from a tough day at the office. Or shouting at the kids. Or snapping at the spouse. Or worse.

Not so good for the dog, but good for the primate. (Until their family leaves. Taking the dog with them.)

I’m talking about the trickle-down effect of bullying because this has widespread implications. It has implications for everyone who was ever bullied, and for everyone involved with someone who was.

It has implications for every form of bullying everywhere:

  • The motivation for psychological, physical, and sexual abuse.
  • In the home; for domestic violence and animal cruelty.
  • In schools and universities.
  • For corporate and political bullying.
  • Mass shootings.
  • Genocide.
  • Even online trolls - why restrict yourself to bullying subordinates? Hiding behind internet anonymity, subordinate trolls can attack alpha animals .

The research suggests bullying is driven by the physiological urge to decrease our stress hormones, by elevating our social status, by bullying the dog.

Hitler knew this.

Imagine World War II without the holocaust.

Hard, isn’t it? The murder of approximately 6 million people who happened to be Jewish; homosexual; intellectually disabled; political dissidents; or plain unlucky, is a defining characteristic of WWII.

Why did Hitler do this? Surely the holocaust wasn’t essential for the war effort?

Yes, the Nazi war-machine benefited from the confiscated cash and property. But - and I’m no historical economist – genocide can’t come cheap. Surely the holocaust profits were substantially offset by the infrastructure and manpower costs required to secretly slaughter millions of innocent people?

I propose that property-confiscation was not a key driver of the Nazi pogroms. The pogroms were underpinned by the ideological propaganda around Jewish people and other ‘undesirables’ stealing the jobs of ‘real’ Germans and generally eroding the German way of life. But what was driving this ideology?

I assume the precursor was Hitler’s personal and profound sense of inadequacy. But at a societal level, it’s likely the punitive conditions of the post-WWI Treaty of Versailles provided the fertile breeding grounds for his Nazi ideology.

Hitler knew, consciously or intuitively, that a substantial proportion of disenfranchised people - people who feel unfairly treated by life - will feel better if they have a dog to kick. And the disenfranchised will support the provider of the unfortunate dog.

It’s plausible that offering the German people - beaten and subordinate after losing WWI - the Jewish people to kick, was a critical factor in Hitler’s rise to power.

Trump knows this too.

A defining characteristic of Trump’s political campaign is The Wall.

Another defining characteristic is the sweeping statements. Like all self-respecting propaganda, Trump’s pronouncements are so broad and lacking in detail as to be almost meaningless. Almost.

Trump’s lead slogan “Make America great again” represents his campaign. The slogan captures the language of implication and promise. It implies both that America is subordinate and promises that Trump will make America an alpha country again. And it implies that, by association, Trump supporters will vicariously transmogrify into alpha animals.

Trump’s slogans also imply deliverance. Trump not so much implies as states that Mexicans and other ‘undesirables’ are stealing the jobs of ‘real’ Americans and generally eroding the American way of life. Trump is delivering a dog to the disenfranchised of America. A dog to kick.

Trump won’t know that the down-trodden are psychophysiologically motivated to bully others. But he intuitively knows many disenfranchised people are keen to have anyone to blame for their predicament – anyone other than themselves that is.

Not realizing they don’t have to loathe anyone, many people in our individualistic culture (subconsciously) feel there is a forced choice between self-loathing and other-loathing. Trump won’t know that other-loathing is healthier than self-loathing (in a ‘least-worst-of-two-terrible-choices-kind-of-a-way’), but he does know it’s relatively easy to switch people from self- to other-loathing.

In the short term anyway. ‘Other-loathing’ tends to end badly (Nazi’s – here’s looking at you), but - as any behavioral psychologist will tell you - even small but immediate rewards (such as a health-boosting drop in cortisol) are more motivating than huge but distant rewards (like, you know, World peace and prosperity for everyone).

While some political commentators are impressed and depressed by the irrationality of the US primaries overall; others are mystified by how Trump supporters are taken in by his apparently irrational megalomaniac propaganda, unhampered by meaningful detail.

But, at a psychophysiological (and short-term, subconscious, and ultimately maladaptive) level, Trump supporters are being entirely rational.

People who need to discharge their cortisol don’t need details. All they need to know is there is someone else to blame. Someone they can successfully bully.

They don’t want to take on the alpha animals. They’ll get a kicking. In contrast, beating up fellow subordinates is a minimal-blood-loss method of inflating their self-perceived social status.

Trump supporters just want to be big fish. They don’t care if they are swimming in the subordinate pond.

Trump also knows it’s cost-effective to scapegoat a relatively low socio-economic status, and therefore vulnerable, minority.

It doesn’t matter that they aren’t wealthy. He doesn’t need confiscated property to fund his campaign, and it doesn’t hurt that his outrageous sound-bites draws massive publicity that extends his campaign budget.

And feeds his ego.

The physiological ‘purpose’ of bullying is to reduce cortisol, the psychological purpose of bullying - or trolling - is to get attention.

Attention, any attention, even negative attention, is better than none.

Attention means you have influence. Attention means power. Attention means status. Attention means you matter.

Exactly like a naughty child who hasn’t received enough positive attention, bullies will provoke to get attention. Any attention.

Trump isn’t exactly without his critics. I’m unsure from this distance whether he is simply impervious to the criticism – or worse – he actively enjoys it. I suspect it’s a combination of both.

Narcissists, with their insatiable need to dominate and bully, can be lethal. Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Ceaușescu, Milošević, al-Bashir, and Mao Zedong, to name just a few. Its not the smartest idea to give a narcissist access to weapons of mass destruction.

Seriously. Doesn’t someone have to be of sound mind to run for the American presidency?

Trump’s ghost writer for the best selling “Art of the deal”, describes Trump as a sociopath. Sadly, the evocative terms ‘sociopath’ and ‘psychopath’ have been deleted from the DSM-5, (Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5th ed.), and, according to my APA psychology dictionary, replaced with ‘Antisocial Personality Disorder’.

However Trump’s symptoms do appear a close match for the diagnostic criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder (DSM-5, pp. 669-672), which are:

“A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early childhood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:

  1. Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g. exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements).
  2. Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
  3. Believes that he is ‘special’ and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions).
  4. Requires excessive admiration.
  5. Has a sense of entitlement (i.e. unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his expectations.
  6. Is interpersonally exploitative (i.e. takes advantage of others to achieve his own ends).
  7. Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
  8. Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him.
  9. Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.”

People with this disorder “often [appear] boastful and pretentious”, and “their self-esteem is almost invariably very fragile” (DSM-5, p. 670). Spoiled for diagnostic choice, Trump’s symptoms also appear to fit the DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for Histrionic Personality Disorder and Antisocial Personality Disorder. However there is no need to choose - personality disorders can and do co-occur.

America, be very very careful. Please do not be fooled into electing a dog-kicker for president.

I don’t believe the interests of America are well served, beyond a brief decrease in cortisol, by the bullying of minorities. There are more sustainable and profitable ways of re-enfranchising the disenfranchised.

Ways that don’t end in a certain court in The Hague. Or a bunker.

I have no way of knowing if this article will help prevent an unbalanced primate securing leadership of the most powerful nation on Earth. What I do know for sure is that I have to try.

We are at a cross-road. It’s time to learn from history. It’s also time to acknowledge the many courageous Germans who passively or actively resisted the Nazi regime. Maybe if more of them had realized that - if unchecked - the most insane of your nightmares can come true, there would have been more active resistance.

All that is needed to prevent the triumph of Trump is for every consciously rational person to actively do something.

Large or small. Keep it legal. Keep it humane.

Support Hilary any way you can - hold your nose if you have to. Support Trump in getting the clinical diagnoses, care, and treatment he’s entitled to.

Just. Try. Something.

That means you.

For starters, please Like, Comment, and Share this article. Ask your friends to do the same.

Thank you.

America, be very very careful. Please do not be fooled into electing Trump - a dog-kicker - for president.
Photography by Rebecca Stafford
America, be very very careful. Please do not be fooled into electing Trump - a dog-kicker - for president.
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