If we want to prevent the next Karen Klein, we need to teach people to understand how bad situations can spin out of control.
It's been just one week since the video of bus monitor Karen Klein being bullied by a group of seventh-graders first made an appearance on YouTube. The video has since been viewed more than seven million times, and the story has made its way to every major news network. A campaign started on IndieGoGo to send Karen on vacation has, as of this writing, raised more than $650,000, offering a powerful testament to what can happen when individuals choose to channel moral outrage into action.
There is also reason to believe that the kids involved learned a lesson. Shortly after the video first began making waves, two of the four boys submitted apologies to the Greece, New York, Police Department, and a third issued a statement through his father.
"I am so sorry for the way I treated you. When I saw that video I was disgusted and could not believe I did that. I am sorry for being so mean and I will never treat anyone this way again," wrote Josh.
Wesley, another student heard on the video, wrote, "I feel really bad about what I did. I wish I had never done those things. If that had happened to someone in my family, like my mother or grandmother, I would be really mad at the people who did that to them."
When we watch Karen, the mirror neurons in our brains fire unconsciously at her obvious misery, with the result that we, too, "feel her pain." We picture our own grandmothers. We recall our own days on the bus, squirming uncomfortably at long-buried memories of the insults and abuse we endured or inflicted. And we dredge up, whether consciously or otherwise, other periods in our lives when we felt hurt, threatened, and unable to escape.
So the disgust that Josh expresses at watching his actions replayed on video is, I suspect, genuine. And had Wesley been thinking about his own mother or grandmother as he looked at Karen, the story might have played out differently.
Karen has yet to accept the apologies, which is fair: The recorded episode was hardly the only instance of verbal abuse in Karen's tenure as a bus monitor, and words of apology will mean little unless they accompany meaningful action. But I suspect they were quite genuine, and that the behavior of those four boys will forever be altered thanks to those ten minutes spent watching their actions from behind a computer screen.
But to prevent episodes like this from happening in the first place we need to understand how they develop. This instance of bullying bears the hallmarks of other situations—think moments depicted in the film Bully, or Enron energy traders, or even Abu Ghraib—in which people who are "not bad" engage in vile behavior.
What begins as one student's taunts quickly becomes a group affair, as three other boys join in, viciously feeding off one another. Other students occasionally jump in with lone remarks and laughter, signaling their belonging to the "in" crowd. And it's safe to presume that off camera there are students who know what is going on is wrong, but lack the courage to stand up and intervene.
Combating those behaviors—discouraging bullying in the first place, and equipping others with the strength and know-how they need to intervene—starts, says Dr. Phil Zimbardo, with what’s known as situational awareness.
Dr. Zimbardo, the professor made famous by the Stanford Prison Experiment, has lately been turning his attention to what makes people good. His Heroic Imagination Project has demonstrated that it's possible to teach people—whether they're in a ninth grade classroom or Fortune 500 boardroom—to turn negative situations into positive change.
What he and his team have found is that if you can name what's happening in a group—when you can understand, for example, the causal mechanics behind conformity, the bystander effect, or group discrimination—you can learn to consciously resist those influences.
So while it's great that the internet rallied to send Karen on vacation, and Josh and Wesley may feel genuine regret, we need to teach students—and everyone, really—to identify situations in which group behavior is veering into dangerous territory and to speak up effectively. That means changing the cultural norms and practices in a school, so that kids and adults alike learn to help each other rather than compete. It means cultivating empathy with the same zeal that we teach science and math. And it means rethinking how we educate, so that today’s lunchroom bullies don’t grow up to be boardroom bullies.
When Karen is happily retired and vacationing at Disneyland, let us remember that the bigger favor to her might be to name what's really going on we see the dark side of conformist behaviors and power plays in our own lives. In an age when news is old within a week, let's resist the urge to forget that video, and to pretend that a successful fundraising campaign has fixed the problem.