The Law of Jante – How to Stop Bullying in Schools.

This blog was written after reading Abigail’s thought provoking blog on “Tall Poppy Syndrome” (TPS)

TPS is the behavioral tendency to knock down those who are ‘superior’ to you (Yang & Terjesen, 2007).  As Abigail notes, in a school environment this may result in intelligent/gifted/high achieving children being bullied.

The “cutting down of tall poppies”, and scrutinizing high achievers is synonymous with Australian (Peeters, 2004) and New Zealand culture (Kirkwood, 2007). It is also ubiquitous in Scandinavian cultures, where it is referred to as the “Law of Jante” (Danish and Norwegian: Janteloven; Swedish: Jantelagen; Finnish: Janten laki; Faroese: Jantulógin) 

The law consists of ten rules who’s broad message is: Don’t think you’re anyone special or that you’re better than us.”

Most people in our culture would intuitively see this as a very negative thing, small minded, envious, and petty. How can true individual freedom exist under such a law?

And yet, in a list of the happiest countries in the world compiled by Professor Ruut Veenhoven at Erasmus University Rotterdam, Sweden (7), Australia (6), Finland (5) and Denmark (1) all make the top 10.

So how can countries so scornful of individual success be so collectively happy and successful?

Inherent in the law of Jante is that the needs of the individual are less important than the needs of the collective whole. In all of the countries named above, most public services are high quality and state funded. These countries can afford to spend so heavily on public services because all four are so heavily taxed that they also made the top ten-list in 2011 for the most heavily taxed countries in the world.

All of this can be related back to bullying in schools. Studies highlight that a common cause of bullying is socioeconomic (SE) inequality and deprivation (Wong, Lok, Lo & Ma, 2007). Similarly, Mouly and Sankaran (2000) highlight that the envy and jealousy that accompanies the syndrome is often related as much to the societal status of the bully as it is to the status of the person they are cutting down.

Consequently, it doesn’t surprise me that bullying is so prevelant in U.S schools, as Abigail highlights. This graphic highlights that the U.S (along with many other countries) has high SE inequalities compared to other countries:


Furthermore, compare the SE inequalities of New Zealand and Australia. TPS is culturally ingrained in both countries, yet New Zealand have higher SE disparity (Marie, Fergusson & Boden, 2010) and are reported to have the second worst bullying problems in the world.

The point I’m making is that TPS only seems to be a bad thing when societies are unequal, in which case it can result in bullying, and clearly a negative school environment. My worry is that the way this country is going, we are going to see a reduction in tax funded public services, increasing the socioeconomic gap between rich and poor, which will increase the problem of bullying in our schools. What good will all our innovations and efforts to change education be if schools are full of bullies?

In my opinion, only by providing the necessary state funded public services to reduce the inequalities suffered by socio-economically deprived populations will countries be able to stop the problem of bullying in schools.

  1. ehe2012 said:

    I found this blog entry very interesting Declan. The issue of TPS/Jante’s Law is one of those wonderful issues where everyone’s opinion has a grain of truth in it, I think. On the one hand I believe everyone deserves to be taken down a peg and nobody should take themselves too seriously. It is also undeniable that egalitarian societies (e.g. Scandinavia) appear to have happy citizens. On the other hand we must not loose track of the fact that everybody is not equal, and that most services that are of great value to our society are performed by highly trained, talented and intelligent experts (engineers, doctors, pilots, researchers etc., see my blog post about the 10,000 Hour Rule and expertise). Then again, sobody who is truly talented and aware of the fact that they are performing a valuable service does not constantly need to have their ‘exceptionality’ acknowledged by society, right? Not unless they are incredibly vain, in which case excessive awe would merely reinforce their negative personality traits.

    With respect to bullying I am less optimistic than you. While bullying might marginally decrease in nations with less socioeconomic inequality, it will probably never go away completely as bullying appears to be inherent to all human societies, and children will merely find some other reason to pick on each other.

  2. You make a good point Declan, bullying interacts with students mental heath (Rigby, Slee,&Martin, 2007), but it is unclear if it is a cause or consequence of poor mental health. Kim et al (2006) found that students who had experienced bullying were more likely to be bullies within the next year. Rothon et al. (2011) found that those being bullied were less likely to achieve the expected academic level for their age. This may be due to truancy because of a dislike or fear of school (Smith et al, 2004). Moderate levels of support from family and strong support from friends does act as a buffer against low academic achievement, however (Rothon et al, 2011). It is very important that schools highlight and address this issue, particularly when there is a significant disparity of Socio Economic backgrounds within the school (Smith et al.,2004)

    Rigby, Slee,&Martin, (2007)
    Kim et al (2006)
    Smith et al (2004)
    Rothon et al. (2011)

  3. Jumping on Dec’s final point there; children from disadvantaged backgrounds are likely to be bullied in schools, and as such, have a much harder time socially and academically. Research by Crosnoe & Cooper found that children from disadvantaged backgrounds obtained consistently lower scores in both reading and math, providing evidence that socio-economic factors have a major role in education.

  4. I read an interesting report on school children’s peer relationships by Gutman and Brown (2008) (

    Similarly to the research highlighted by Jay, they found that children from low-income families are most likely to be victimized by bullying. Children from ethnic minorities were also likely to be victimized, but to a lesser extent than children from the low-income group.

    This lends weight to Kolja’s belief that children will always find some reason to pick on each other.
    However, I can’t help but see bullying as a vicious cycle. Many bullies after all are themselves victims of bullying. In their sample of 6,500 8-11 year olds, Gutman and Brown found that 5% of children engaged in bullying behaviour. However, only 0.5% of these children were “true bullies” in the sense that they were not bullied by their peers. The remaining 4.5% were also bullied themselves.

    Now imagine this sample of 4.5% were not bullied, and were not victimized for being poor (for example). Isn’t it feasible that the ‘vicious cycle’ of bullying would end, and we would see a significant drop in the bullying behavior that makes school such a miserable place? (and I might also add contributes to depression, emotional disaffection and suicidal behavior)

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