Today, I’ve asked Geoffrey L. Cohen to share his Tip of the Week.
My 12-year-old son came home from school one day, his head hanging low. A kid had been teasing him, and he lashed out in return. Things escalated until he found himself in a fistfight on the playground, other kids egging him on. He knew “it probably wasn’t the best thing to do.”
I was disappointed in my son—hadn’t I raised him to be a better person than that? When I asked him why he did it, he said, “Sometimes I care more about my ego than about myself.”
This motivation to protect and enhance our sense of self is what psychologists call self-integrity.
Life is full of threats to self-integrity. You didn’t get a promotion. A friend slighted you. Even when there’s no actual threat, your mind drifts to possible ones: Maybe I’ll choke under pressure at the next game. Maybe I’ll fail the big exam. And so on.
When our self-integrity is threatened even momentarily, we are more likely to conform to others who offer validation, even when their views are wrong, reckless, or hateful.
We might think that people who engage in destructive or anti-social behavior lack character, that they’re bad seeds who have a history of disciplinary problems. But research finds that’s often not the case. One of the strongest predictors of teens’ bad behavior isn’t their attitude but social norms—what they think other teens endorse, especially the ones they want to be like. In this study, the teens who conformed most to anti-social norms were the ones who, like my son, worried about being accepted.
That’s why punitive approaches to disciplinary problems in school, especially suspension, do more harm than good. Punishment doesn’t help teens feel like they belong. What’s the alternative? Activities that affirm the self, that help people to get in touch with their core values and live them out in word and deed.
Don’t jump to the conclusion that bad behavior reflects bad character.
Do consider the possibility that bad behavior comes from a desire to belong and be seen. Help the young people in your life reflect on their most cherished values. Then they can join volunteer groups, sports teams, and other extracurricular activities that allow them to express and act on those values. In my son’s case, he became an avid member of a sports club, where he learned and lived out the values of effort and teamwork—and found a powerful source of self-integrity and belonging.
With affirmation and gratitude,
Geoffrey L. Cohen, the author of Belonging: The Science of Creating Connection and Bridging Divides, is a professor of psychology and the James G. March Professor of Organizational Studies in Education and Business at Stanford University.