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The Porcupine Dilemma & Bullying in Schools

Instructor: Della McGuire

Della has been teaching secondary and adult education for over 20 years. She holds a BS in Sociology, MEd in Reading, and is ABD on the MComm in Storytelling.

In this lesson, we will discuss Schopenhauer's Porcupine Dilemma parable and explore ways this story relates to bullying in schools. We will also look at how school staff can understand this metaphor to improve social interactions among students.

The Porcupine's Dilemma

Arthur Schopenhauer's parable describing the porcupine's dilemma can be a helpful metaphor for human interaction. Here is the unabridged version of the tale:

'A number of porcupines huddled together for warmth on a cold day in winter; but, as they began to prick one another with their quills, they were obliged to disperse. However the cold drove them together again, when just the same thing happened. At last, after many turns of huddling and dispersing, they discovered that they would be best off by remaining at a little distance from one another.

'In the same way the need of society drives the human porcupines together, only to be mutually repelled by the many prickly and disagreeable qualities of their nature. The moderate distance which they at last discover to be the only tolerable condition of intercourse, is the code of politeness and fine manners; and those who transgress it are roughly told--in the English phrase--to keep their distance.

'By this arrangement the mutual need of warmth is only very moderately satisfied; but then people do not get pricked. A man who has some heat in himself prefers to remain outside, where he will neither prick other people nor get pricked himself.' (Schopenhauer, 1851/1964)

The Student's Dilemma

Let's take a look at how this theory might play out with a student. Ryan, a 4th grader, has had some difficulty making friends. He is like the shivering porcupine who wants to try getting close to others for the warmth of interpersonal connection. He tries to join a group of kids on the playground, but they are playing a game he doesn't know. They aren't interested in taking the time to teach him, so he wanders off. Rather than trying to find other kids to play with, he is discouraged by that rejection and sits alone, like the porcupine that moves away from the group to avoid the quill prick of rejection.

The next day, he tries to join the group again, only this time they are openly hostile at him for trying again after they thought they were clear that they didn't want to play with him. This time, instead of walking away, Ryan decides to tell them that he didn't really want to play their stupid game anyway. That second rejection puts Ryan's quills up, and he is taking the retaliatory action to reject those who rejected him. Ryan is at risk of both being bullied and becoming a bully because of this cycle of failed attempts to connect, followed by isolation.

The Bullying Problem

Social science research indicates that rejection and social isolation can lead to aggression and anger. This research indicates that many instances of bullying can be attributed to the bully being socially isolated or rejected and acting out to retaliate. This aggression leads to further rejection and isolation, driving the bully into a cyclical pattern of rejection and aggression, not unlike the porcupines in the parable.

Social rejection can feel frustrating and painful. It can threaten self-esteem and self-control. Often, acting out aggressively with bullying can serve as a means of reestablishing that control, improving one's mood through retribution and exerting social influence, as we saw play out with Ryan on the playground.

Other research indicates that the rejected parties may actually attempt to reach out more than those who aren't rejected to attempt to create social bonds. These attempts indicate a need for social capital (huddling warmth) that is stronger than the risk of rejection (quill pricks). This indicates that addressing the problem of bullying in schools may be a matter of tapping into this enhanced need to seek peer approval by those who have been rejected. Providing an outlet for students to safely reconnect with others after negative social experiences can help them learn coping skills needed for healthy interpersonal interactions.

Porcupines have to learn to lay their quills down to huddle for warmth.
porcupines

Practical Applications

Explaining this metaphor for human interaction can help students understand how to navigate socialization and find a balance between the need for belonging with the pain of getting too close. Based on the research indicating a connection between rejection and bullying, schools can use this story to help students understand how to find balance to avoid isolation and facilitate connection. This may assist in enhancing the school's anti-bullying initiatives.

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