Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Failure of Social Learning Theory and Its Unintended Consequences in UK Bullying Prevention - Brook Hailu

Bullying has been a standard part of adolescence for quite some time. What used to be shrugged off as typical growing pains has taken center stage nationally after the suicide of a Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi in September 2010 following his roommate’s posting of a filmed sex act involving Tyler and another male student (8). Numerous studies have documented the negative effects of bullying on both victims and aggressors. A study on the prevalence of bullying in American low socioeconomic black and latino populations indicated that a full 22% had been involved in bullying in some manner, be it bullying, being bullied or both (9). Further, victims of bullying are far more likely to develop mental health issues such as depression, poor self esteem and schizophrenia (12). Victims are not the only ones to suffer the adverse effects of bullying. The perpetrators of aggressive behavior are more likely to develop criminal behavior at the age of 30 and take part in adolescent truancy, and vandalism (24). The seriousness of bullying and its direct implication in a rash of suicides and its role in numerous school shootings (11) has lead to tough legal responses by states nationwide: over half have enacted some form of anti bullying legislation (11).

A press release in September 2010 by Beatbullying, a British anti-bullying group, noted that according to Office of National Statistics from 2000- 2008, 44% of suicides in adolescents aged 10-14 were due to bullying (2). Armed with this information, the British government decided to address the problem by selling blue anti-bullying wristbands that would be worn and championed by British stars including Bono, David Beckham and Joss Stone. Applying the principles of Social Learning Theory, the UK government hoped to show through the use of multiple famous persons that bullying would not be tolerated. Sadly, this campaign backfired as the blue wristbands became a highly sought fashion symbol and created an easy method for bullies to identify potential victims that they could attack (7). This intervention’s failure has its roots in the failure of Social Learning Theory coupled with Diffusion of Innovation theory: specifically the use of role models to model a desired behavior. This theory in this particular context induced reactance in the bullies by positively labeling the victims that it was trying to protect and negatively labeling the bullies whose behavior it was trying to change.

Social Learning theory Created a Scarce and Desirable “Fashion Item”

The goal of the lawmakers was to change social norms and behavior surrounding bullying. It was to show that bullying affected every component of society, including rock stars and athletes. According to school minister Stephen Twigg, “Wearing the band will give young people the opportunity to make a visible commitment that they are not prepared to tolerate bullying and will stand by their friends.” (7) In releasing these wristbands and having them modeled by celebrities and other various opinion leaders in British society, the UK Government was hoping to show the solidarity and support of stars who were against bullying. The logic behind this stems from opinion leadership, diffusion of innovation (DOI) and social learning theory. DOI theory is concerned with the speed with which an innovation spreads through a population (13). According to DOI theory, the speed of the innovation is highly dependent on the adopter’s category. The early adopters will adopt the innovation far more quickly than the late innovators (13). However, DOI theory recognizes that all individuals do not share the same level of influence over the population (13). As such, DOI theory stresses the use of opinion leaders who tend to have higher access to media, and a higher socioeconomic status (13).

In his work, Rogers posits multiple strategies for increasing the speed of the innovation. One of which is to have an innovation be adopted by a highly respected individual within a social network, creating an instinctive desire for a specific innovation (1, 13). The blending of DOI theory with Social Learning theory is the basis behind having stars such as Bono wear the bracelet: a highly popular and respected individual with high levels of media exposure modeling a positive behavior. They associated their innovation/desired behavior change with celebrities: the ultimate trend setters in “cool.” They hoped that by doing so, they could achieve the intended behavior modification.

The Failure to Create a High Value Behavior That Produces a Desired Outcome

Social Learning theory postulates that individuals do not learn new behaviors outside of the context of their society (1). It posits that people in a general population learn new behavior from close contact with respected superiors, or role models. If the new behavior has a high value to the individual, and is modeled by a respected individual in the society, then the person is more likely to learn a new behavior. Lastly, if the behavior change has a specific desired outcome for the individual, they are more likely to change.

The problems inherent in the application of social learning theory in this instance are twofold. First, the theory posits that the behavior change will be adopted if it has a high value to the individual (1). In this instance, the campaign consisted of celebrities wearing wristbands that showed support for anti-bullying. That is the entirety of the campaign. Aside from modeling possession of the bracelet, what is the high value behavior change to bullies? The only high value produced was that of the bracelet as it became a widely popular. The failure of the campaign’s architects to tie the bracelet into any meaningful behavior change other than possession of the bracelet is one cause for the campaigns backfiring.

Second, the theory also states that individuals are more likely to adopt a behavior if the behavior has a specific desired outcome for them (1). In thinking briefly about what the specific desired outcome is for the bullies, only one comes to mind: possession of the bracelet. There is no benefit to changing bullying behavior for the bullies, when they can continue on bullying other children, and still possess the bracelet.

The architects of the campaign failed to make a high value behavior change for bullies. In the absence of a behavior change, the only high value outcome was in possessing the bracelet. With this population that was already prone to aggression it is easy to see how the campaign could backfire.

Negative and Positive Labeling Induced Reactance

The architects of this campaign failed to significantly consider the ways in which the use of DOI and SLT could label both the individuals who wore the bracelets, and the ones who didn’t. Labeling theory has its roots as a way to explain the reasons why criminals acted differently from the overall population (23). The central tenet of labeling theory posits that the behaviors and self-identity of individuals can be directly influenced by the labels and words used to describe them. Thus, when someone is labeled as a criminal, it is not that the person is necessarily a criminal, it is that the society in which the individual has been raised views him as and has labeled him a criminal, and treats him accordingly; the label functions to differentiate him from the general population, and the population treats him differently (23).

In this instance, society positively identified the victims of bullying and those who wore the bracelet. The positive labeling by the British government of those with the blue bracelet had a negative labeling effect on those without the bracelet, or the bullies. Having this rare bracelet that even David Beckham was wearing conferred up its owners a certain status, and an inherent value judgment: those with the bracelet are productive members of society like Bono and Joss Stone, and those without the bracelet, bullies, have very little value to society. Bullies are still part of the society in which they live and still want to be productive members of society. As this value is being taken away from them, and they are unable to be productive members of society, they must do whatever it takes to end that wrong: they must become productive members of society. This reactance manifests itself in the bullies then attacking the children who have the bracelets and through attaining these bracelets becoming productive members of society.

Second, those who wore the bracelet were easily identified to targets of bullying. In the words of 13 year old Rosie from London, "They basically thought 'Hey! Everyone who's wearing a wristband must be scared of bullying!' So they decided to bully the people wearing wristbands"(7). One unforeseen outcome of this intervention was that the bullies negatively labeled those who wore the bracelets as weak. This created an easily identifiable and in this case highly sought after marker.

Scarcity Induced Reactance

Another unfortunate consequence of a very successful marketing campaign using DOI and opinion leadership principles was an increase in reactance because the bracelet was so rare. This bracelet that was already highly sought because it had been modeled by the elite of Britain was not produced in sufficient quantity. The demand for the bracelet was so high with children and the general public, that it was seen to sell on e-bay for 21 British pounds ($35) (7). According to Dr. Siegel, “scarcity induces reactance” (15). This is the tactic used in last minute sales (6) and it is the same principle that led to psychological reactance in the bullies. According to psychological reactance theory developed by Jack Brehm "whenever free choice is limited or threatened, the need to retain our freedoms makes us desire them (as well as the goods and services associated with them) significantly more than previously" (3). In a study measuring the sex differences of reactance in young children who are prevented from attaining an object of their desire, the male children are driven crazy by the prospect of not being able to get what they want, and react very negatively to the threat to their freedom: they will do whatever it takes to get the toy that is behind the glass because this threat to their freedom is unacceptable (4). The same can be said of the bullies. The bullies saw a perceived threat to their freedom in the form of the scarcity of a wildly popular bracelet. This bracelet was being worn by what they deemed as people being afraid of bullying. The only way to cope with that perceived threat was to rectify the situation completely. In this case, rectifying the situation meant stealing the bracelet from the individuals, as the schoolchildren could most likely not afford the 21 pound accessory. This was specific to this encounter, as these were already individuals who were at risk of being bullied. This reactance coupled with the innate aggression by the bully population, led to this intervention backfiring.

This intervention backfired for three specific reasons. First, it positively labeled those who had the bracelets, and inherently negatively labeled those without the bracelets. This negative labeling caused reactance in the second group. Second, it caused the bullies to be able to negatively label those who had the bracelets as weak, and easily identifiable. Third, because this object was rare, popular and expensive, it increased the demand for the object. In this particular context, with this vulnerable and now easily identifiable population, this scarcity induced the reactance in the bullies to make them want the bracelet even more.

“I’m Like You. It Can Happen to You, Because it Happened to Me” (4)

As stated in the introduction, 44% of suicides in UK adolescents aged 10-14 are the result of bullying (2). In the UK, one in five children were bullied in 2004. In the US almost 22% of low socioeconomic children are bullied (9). I think that in using DOI and SLT with these celebrities, the UK lawmakers were trying to bring this issue home to the public. They were trying to make all segments of the population understand that bullying is bad and shouldn’t be tolerated. However, all of these statistics and empty symbolism behind the campaign mean absolutely nothing to the average person. As Dr. Siegel discussed in class, people’s behavior is not dependent on a set of data or statistics; this is because they base their opinions not on facts but on what they know to be true of their immediate surroundings (friend family etc). Because of this, statistics and empty markers will not be effective in combating bullying (22). I propose that instead of statistics and bracelets, we create a campaign to combat bullying that illustrates the very personal nature of bullying by telling a story (16). People are more likely to be affected by the story of an individual who was bullied. Thus, I propose that we create an ad campaign that highlights the real story of a victim of bullying. There would be three campaigns: one told through the lenses of a student who stands up for a fellow classmate who was bullied. The second would use a famous figure such as David Beckham. It would tell the story of his youth, and how he stood up for his friends and classmates who were victims of bullying. Because individuals are more likely to respond to a story that is delivered by individuals that they like (6) and that are similar to them (17) this campaign will be far more likely to succeed and reach the target audience. This type on a campaign plays on Marketing theory, in which we find the needs, wants and core values of an individual. We then sell a product, or in our case the anti bullying behavior change to the general public based on that core value (10). We have identified a core value of acceptance, and should use that core value to initiate our behavior change.

This campaign also minimizes psychological reactance for a number of reasons. First, it is explicit in its message and it is less likely to make the individuals feel manipulated (15). Second reactance is decreased whenever a message is delivered by someone who is similar to the ones receiving the message (15). In this case it would be delivered by a person similar to the target audience and an individual who is widely popular in the society in which the message is being delivered (17).

By combating reactance in this manner we can move onto the next point: making the bracelets part of a positive labeling program. This can also be done by making the bracelet and the campaign a part of a positive labeling campaign that mirrors the 84 or (21) the Crush Cutie projects (24) in Massachusetts that seek to positively label individuals who choose to not smoke. The theory behind this being that if labeled positively, individuals will live up to a positive stereotype as opposed to living down to negative stereotype. We could call the campaign the “100 campaign” for the 100% of Great Britain that refuses to tolerate bullying. In conjunction with free, or marginally priced, bracelets that are worn by school opinion leaders, and celebrities, we can create a positive label and brand that would be more successful in combating bullying in the UK.

Third, I believe that we can correct the original bracelet intervention in two additional ways. First, we can reduce the psychological reactance that is induced when a highly sought after object is very rare (20) by mass producing the bracelet and making it free, or charging a nominal fee for it. This may not positively affect bullying, but I believe that making these bracelets more widely accessible to the general population will eliminate the accidental negative labeling that occurred in the first place. If everyone who wears these bracelets is a productive member of society akin to Joss Stone and David Beckham, and the bracelets are made in large numbers, then we can avoid the negative labeling that occurred in the bullies. By continuing to use these opinion leaders and role models, but tying them into better and more well thought out campaigns that use positive labeling and marketing theory, I believe we can affect behavior change on a larger scale.

“So, It's Made a Difference, but Not a Good One” (7)

The campaign failed for a number of reasons. The reasons are highly interrelated. The intervention was based around a highly successful campaign with its roots in Diffusion of Innovation and Social Learning theories. They used popular figures from British culture hoping that the rest of the population would stop bullying each other. However, this intervention failed because it did not give a high value behavior change that conferred a desired outcome upon the individual: they could get the bracelet by continuing on in their behavior. Because the bracelet was such a highly sought commodity, they induced reactance in the bullies and the population at large who sought this valuable and attractive bracelet. Second, they inadvertently and negatively labeled the individuals who wore this bracelet as victims. Taken in conjunction, a rare commodity that was popularized by opinion leaders, and negatively labeled those who wore them put the victims at even further risk.


1) Bandura A. Social Learning Theory. New York: General Learning Press, 1977.

2) Beatbullying.

3) Brehm, J. W. (1966). A theory of psychological reactance. Academic Press.

4) Brehm, Sharon S. (1981). Psychological reactance and the attractiveness of unobtainable objects: Sex differences in children's responses to an elimination of freedom. Sex Roles, Volume 7, Number 9,937-949

5) Chapin, John. It Wont Happen to Me: The Role of Optimistic Bias in African-American Teen’ Risky Sexual Practices. Atlanta, GA. Meeting of the National Communication Association, 2001.

6) Cialdini, R. The Psychology of Persuasion. New York, Ny: William Morrow and Company, 1993.

7) Curtis, Polly (Dec 8, 2004). Anti-bulling wristband scheme backfires. The Guardian. Retrieved from

8) Friedman, Emily (Sept. 29, 2010). Victim of Secret Dorm Sex Tape Posts Facebook Goodbye, Jumps to His Death. ABC World News. Retrieved from

9) Juvonen, J., Graham, S., Schuster, M.A. Bullying Among Young Adolescents: The Strong, the Weak, and the Troubled, Pediatrics 2003;112;1231-1237

10) Lotenberg, L.D., Siegel, M. Marketing Public Health: Strategies to Promote Social Change. Sudbury, MA. Jones and Barlett Publishers, 2007.

11) National Conference of State Legislatures. School Bullying: Overview. Washington DC, National Conference of State Legislatures

12) Olweus, D. (1993). BULLYING AT SCHOOL: WHAT WE KNOW AND WHAT WE CAN DO. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell. ED 384 437.

13) Rogers, Everett M. (1983). Diffusion of Innovations. New York: Free Press. ISBN 0029266505

14) Siegel, Michael, MD. “The Psychological Basis of Persuasion.” Boston University School of Public Health, SB 721. Boston, MA. 23 Sep. 2010.

15) Siegel, Michael MD. “Social Expectations Theory and Psychological Reactance Theory.” Boston University School of Public Health, SB 721. Boston, MA. 11 Nov. 2010.

16) Siegel, Michael MD. “Social Network Theory, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the Law of Small Numbers, and Optimistic Bias and the Illusion of Control”. Boston University School of Public Health, SB 721. Boston, MA. 18 Nov. 2010.

17) Silvia, P. J. (2005). Deflecting reactance: The role of similarity in increasing compliance and reducing resistance. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 27, 277–284

18) So Crush

19) Students don wristbands to fight bullying (November 23, 2004). The Peninsula. Retrieved from

20) Suri, R., Kohli, C., Monroe, K.B. The effects of perceived scarcity on consumers’ processing of price information. J. of the Acad. Mark. Sci. (2007) 55:89-100.

21) The 84: It’s Not Just a Number, It’s Who you are

22) Tversky, A., Kahneman, D. Belief In the Law of Small Numbers. Hebrew University of Jerusalem Psychological Bulletin, 1971, Vol. 76, No. 2. 105-110.

23) Vito, Gennaro F., Jeffery R. Maahs, and Ronald M. Holmes. Criminology: Theory, Research And Policy. 2nd ed. Sudbury: Jones & Bartlett, 2006. Print.

24) Williams, K. D., Forgás, J. P. & von Hippel, W. (Eds.) (2005). The Social Outcast: Ostracism, Social Exclusion, Rejection, & Bullying. Psychology Press: New York, NY.

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