The scientific reality of escalation

I recently presented a paper at the World Anti-Bullying Forum. One of the conversations I had with another participant had to do with the scientific reality of escalation and the desire to not have that happen.

Here is what they said.

I enjoyed your presentation very much and it gave me much to think about. In CBT terms I would agree that all behavior generates some kind of ‘pay-off’ or reward, which resonates strongly with your work.

The protocol you describe is one which I could imagine would work well with adults. In Scotland, a national priority is the safeguarding and protection of children and young people from harm, with a focus on positive, supportive relationships being nurtured between children and adults to encourage safe reporting of bullying incidents, followed by responsive, restorative actions.

The escalation of risk in the short/medium term, even to achieve the longer term outcomes, would be difficult to apply universally here and a high-risk model such as this would be ethically questionable in our national context. The variability of children and young people’s individual capacity, agency, resolve and resilience would be problematic, as would be the same factors for the adults who support them.

This is very similar to what the Association of School Psychologists said to me when I approached them about bullying elimination vs bullying prevention. And, pretty much everyone I tell this story to are shocked. Regular people want bullying elimination. It’s clearly not enough to prevent bullying, we also need reactive strategies that work to make it stop once it’s started – just in case, prevention doesn’t work, which – it often doesn’t.

What I want people to understand about escalation.

Escalation occurs every time a reward is removed from an established behavior. Every time. I would not describe it as a risk. Risk implies the possibility it might not happen. The reality is escalation always happens. Always and in every animal ever studied including humans. It’s not a risk, it’s a reality.

Failure to acknowledge the scientific reality of the escalation dynamic that plays out whenever a reward is removed from an established behavior is irresponsible and dangerous in the context of bullying. The only way to avoid the escalation is to consistently reward the behavior. Not only is that not acceptable when it comes to bullying, it pretty much guarantees further escalation because it sets up a variable dynamic that will strengthen the unwanted behavior. Ignoring behavioral reality doesn’t eliminate reality. Escalation is a reality, not a risk. If we don’t start teaching people (including young people) the reality of what is happening behaviorally, they won’t be able to control or stop what is happening behaviorally.

Every child who is coached on how to deal with bullying who is not told what WILL happen when they do whatever is recommended, is a child that will experience escalation without proper support. It’s no wonder kids come to believe that there is no point in telling parents and adults what is happening, because their lived experience is that reporting only makes it worse. Which it does because the escalation dynamic is not something you can avoid. It’s a reality. We should be preparing the child for this reality and supporting them through it, instead of ignoring it and making them experience it on their own with no information on what is happening and why or what exactly to do about it. Again, this isn’t a risk, it’s a lived reality for anyone being actively bullied.

I understand the focus on the positive and preventative measures, which is obviously important. It’s easier to prevent a behavior from becoming established than to eliminate it once it is established. The problem is that once bullying becomes established our goal is no longer prevention, but elimination.

The question is no longer, how do I prevent bullying.

The question is now: how do I make it stop?

The only scientifically validated known way to make unwanted behavior stop is to consistently remove the reward for the behavior. No other methodology works. The problem is, whenever a reward is removed from an established behavior, it causes an escalation. The unfortunate scientific reality is that there is no way to stop an unwanted behavior, like bullying, without triggering an escalation. The science of behavioral extinction is very very very clear on this matter. This is unfortunately, a binary choice. Either we allow bullying to continue, or we do the hard work required to make it stop and that means, triggering an escalation intentionally.

Escalation can be managed and controlled IF we acknowledge it is something we need to plan for and manage and control. It’s not risky to embrace the scientific reality of how behaviors are extinguished and eliminated. What is risky is to ignore scientific reality because we don’t like it. What is risky is for us to abandon kids who are actively being bullied because – we are only willing to prevent bullying, but not eliminate bullying.

Every parent and every child dealing with bullying is asking – how to make it stop. They are asking for help with elimination, not prevention. This is the crisis we face. We should be facing that challenge using science.

Collaboration opportunities

My hope in participating in the conference was to find people willing to integrate the established science on how behaviors are stopped into their work. I am looking for people willing to integrate the scientific reality of behavior elimination into the work they do.

If you work at a non-profit or a school or are a researcher working on this topic, please reach out to me. I’m happy to consult on your project and help you understand exactly what happens and how to control it using behavioral science. This can inform research, and help people designing programs to stop bullying.