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The Psychology of Unkindness


Explanations > Behaviors > Bullying > The Psychology of Unkindness

Unkindness is | deliberately or otherwise | causing | intense | harm | of the vulnerable | for various reasons | See also


Not being unkind to others is a common human value, a common summary of which is that we should 'Do no harm'. To avoid criticism, we hence need to understand this forbidden action.

Unkindness is...

Unkindness, in any form from carelessness to cruelty, can be defined briefly as 'causing distress'. In more detail, this can be expanded to:

  • Deliberately, carelessly or accidentally,...
  • ...directly or indirectly causing...
  • ...intense...
  • ...physical harm, pain, fear, distress or anger...
  • ...of vulnerable people, observers or others...
  • ...for reason of ignorance, coping, convenience, personal gain or pleasure.

These are each discussed in detail in separate sections below.

Deliberately, carelessly or accidentally, ...

Deliberate causing of distress, for whatever reason (see later) is a clear unkindness and would seem to be unforgivable. Yet we regularly do this, justifying it as revenge or necessary motivation.

Even when distress is not intended, we may be criticised for not taking due care to avoid distress. This implies we should constantly self-censor, reviewing what we might say or do lest it cause distress.

Accidentally causing distress can happen when we have taken due care yet the person still feels unhappy as a result of what we say. This can become even more puzzling and difficult when others also judge us as being unkind.

...directly or indirectly causing...

Direct cause occurs where your actions lead directly to distress of some kind. While directly causing distress can be accidental, it is harder to deny intent, especially if the distress is obvious and no apology is offered.

Indirect cause occurs where your actions lead to distress through other people or a sequence of causes. Inciting hatred is an indirect means, as is forgetting to service a car such that brakes become inadequate, leading to another driver having an accident.


The intensity of distress can vary significantly, ranging from mild concern to deep anguish. This is a critical dimension as it represents the experienced effect of the unkindness.

Intensity typically varies less with action or intent and more with sensitivity and perceived intent.

We often try to read the minds of others and can easily assume unkindness or just a careless lack of concern. Having done so, we feel distressed at the perceived unkindness, whether it is real or not. Such misunderstanding is very common and can easily lead to undeserved retribution, with consequent distress and a spiral into feuding.

When considering how distressful or actions may be, we tend to assume others have similar sensitivity to us, and that any distress we might cause is caused by over-sensitivity. While we culturally share norms about reasonable sensitivity, there can be a wide actual variation in what people experience, which may be affected by things as diverse as ability to withstand physical pain and retriggering of past trauma.

...physical harm, fear, distress or anger...

While we have used distress as a generic term so far, there are other forms of unkindness that lead to experience of various negative emotion.

The worst unkindness is causing physical pain, particularly when it is intense and prolonged. The most common form of this is through hitting people. The most terrible is deliberate torture.

It is also unkind to cause fear, whether by direct threat or more subtle insinuation. Of course people may take fright at innocent conversation and an important question again is about intensity and duration. Abject terror is very debilitating, as is persistent anxiety.

While bullying can be physical, the main goal is often control through fear of distress. For example, name-calling attacks a person's sense of identity, with resultant distress.

Insult can be a weapon for both speaker and listener, for example as insult leads to distress, righteous anger, and consequent justification of disproportionate revenge.

...of vulnerable people, observers or others...

A remark or action is considered to be more unkind if the target person is less able to cope or defend themselves against such an attack. The perpetrator may be named a bully, while others may feel obliged to play the part of rescuer, saving the weak victim from the powerful aggressor.

Vulnerability can stem from any combination of mental, emotional or physical limitation. This can be seen in vulnerable groups such as wonen (physical), children (all three) and the bereaved (emotional). Vulnerability can also have a strong social basis, for example where minorities are persecuted by majorities, or where less popular group members can be safely teased.

There has been a long trend of increasing sensitivity that has led social forbidding of comments about vulnerable groups. This has led to many of us being more careful. People in vulnerable groups (or their supporters) may also take advantage of their protected status to launch their own unkindness on perceived transgressors, whether or not this is justified. Such paradoxical reversals can lead to complaints of excessive political correctness.

..for reason of ignorance, coping, convenience, personal gain or pleasure.

Finally, the purpose of unkindness can vary in ways that may draw increasing criticism.

Much unkindness is not really intended. It is more a result of carelessness or ignorance as people do not realize how others are experiencing some form of distress. Such actions may be criticized, and a simple apology is often sufficient to mollify concerns.

Sometimes we are unkind because we are defending the ego, such as when insults are traded in an argument, and are mentally unable to cope with the situation. Unkindness in such situations is often used to deliberately push the other person away as their presence is causing distress of some kind.

We may also knowingly cause distress on our way to achieving our own goals. People just get in the way as we pursue what we see as legitimate actions, excusing their unhappiness as unavoidable collateral damage. Depending on the action and distress, this may well attract stronger criticism from others.

The most criticized unkindness is often that where we gain pleasure from the distress of others, particularly where the distress is intense and we are unapologetic about what we have done. Such actions are typically framed as evil rather than bad or wrong, and perpetrators singled out for extreme punishment.

See also

The terrible effect of bigoteering vigilantism


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