The Neuroscience of Richie Incognito

and bullying behavior 

Copyright 2014


ESPN:  "There was a recent episode of bullying in an NFL locker room."

Morgan: "What?  Seriously?"



Richie incognito and Jonathan Martin were offensive linemen who used to play for the Miami Dolphins.  Incognito is accused of "bullying" Martin.  Here is what happened according to Wiki: 


On October 30, 2013, it was reported that Martin had left team facilities two days earlier, citing "emotional" reasons. It was later reported that during this period Martin had briefly checked into a hospital for emotional distress before flying to his parents' home in California, where he is "preparing a detailed document for his cooperation with a league investigation into a string of alleged multiple incidents he says led to his emotional distress and exit from the team".

On November 2, it was reported that Richie Incognito's ring-leading role in the harassment of Martin dating as far back as the 2012 season was being reviewed by the NFL Players Association.  On November 3, Incognito was suspended by the Dolphins for "conduct detrimental to the team." The next day, it was reported that Incognito had sent numerous texts and voicemails making threats against Martin and Martin's family.


Wait a minute ... I thought that bullying behavior was something adolescents did?  Are you saying that some guy who plays in the NFL is not strong enough to take some ribbing from a fellow player?  Guys in a locker room are always talking smack to each other, when does it become bullying?  You have to be tougher than that to play in the NFL, don't you?  Guys who are going to battle together do all sorts of stupid male bonding stuff don't they?  They have to push each other hard so they know how tough they are and who they can count on in the trenches.


319 pound Richie Incognito bullied 312 pound Jonathan Martin into having a nervous breakdown.  Are you kidding me?


This essay is not intended to support or condemn Richie Incognito.  I want to use his example to discuss the issue of bullying behavior that has recently become popular in our culture.  First, here is a little background information:


Recently, social scientists have studied a problem that effects millions of school age children.  They have found that it is common for an individual or small group of students to treat a fellow student in an aggressive or demeaning way and that this behavior can have deleterious consequences. 

These scientists have been successful at educating our society in regards to this problem.  The US government got involved and has taken steps to improve our schools by teaching kids and faculty how to identify this behavior.  Our government has also taught us how this behavior hurts people and how to reduce it.  This is all really good stuff that will help move our society further along in the civilizing process.  If you want to learn more, go to the government website called


In the modern world bullying behavior is counter-productive and needs to be curtailed.  However, it is not the case that some individuals are just evil.  It is more complicated than that.  If you want to understand human behavior and why bullying exists in our species, then I hope that this essay will lead to some greater understanding. is a great website.  It will improve our lives and our society but there is a lot of misunderstanding around this issue.  Even though it is good to be talking about this stuff, there is also a lack of understanding that is causing harm in the other direction.  The anti-bullying campaign often goes too far and it sometimes goes in a less than helpful direction.  Interestingly, the human behavior that derails the stop bulling effort is the same human behavior that results in bullying behavior in the first place.  I hope you understand what I mean after you finish reading this essay.

My guess is that this kind of behavior goes on in most NFL locker rooms but there are limits.  Richie Incognito likely stepped over those limits.  To take a deeper look at this issue, so we can make sense out of something that seems inexplicable, we have to first find out where this type of behavior comes from. 

Bullying behavior is ubiquitous in homo sapiens. Every group of adolescent humans everywhere on the planet does this behavior and no one is ever taught how to do it.  Therefore, it must come pre-programmed in our brains.  It is an innate human behavior.  Therefore, we need to understand it from a neuroscience and anthropological point of view.  How do our brains do this behavior and how, or why, did it offer a survival advantage to our hunter/gatherer forbearers? 

Let me start by talking about a few basic programs that come pre-installed in a human brain.  The human brain is programmed to simplify incoming information.  It categorizes stuff into two, maybe three, alternatives for faster and easier decision making.  Our brains prefer sound bites and catch phrases so that a large amount of information can be quickly communicated.  We are programmed to feel best when we have opinions that agree with other members of our in-group.  We are programmed to run in small groups.  Our brains are networked.  Beliefs are collective.  Human brains do not have a logic program.  They come with a "rationalize a post hoc explanation" program.  Our brains have the curious ability to feel confident about a belief even if it is not logical or accurate.  (A post hoc rationalization is a classic logical fallacy).  We are programmed to distrust or hate members of the out-group.  As our brains grew bigger it was more difficult to get through the birth canal so we needed to be born earlier.  Therefore, we have programs for nurturing because we raise babies who are born premature.  There are lots more programs but these are some that are particularly related to this essay.

Ad campaigns take advantage of the way our brains are programmed so that we will buy what they are selling.  The ad campaign to improve bullying behavior is no different.

Here is how was the campaign was carried out:

First, a word or a sound bite was coined to identify the behavior, "Bullying." 

Second, our innate nurturing programs were stimulated by promoting the idea that weak individuals are being harmed. 

Third, the word "bully" was used to identify individuals in an out-group.  This stimulated the use of our innately programmed mistrust and hostility towards the perceived "out-group." 

Finally, most of us easily accepted that bullying behavior was wrong and the target of our wrath became the inglorious bastard called a "Bully."


When confronted with an issue, humans are not programmed to study, research and draw logical conclusions.  We are programmed to jump in and go with our gut and follow the pied piper off the cliff with the rest of our in-group. 

The reality is that most issues are more complicated than they appear at first glance. 

When your species is trying to survive in a hostile and changing environment it is not so important to study things in detail.  You need to make quick decisions and be unified as a group.  It is important to play the percentages and make decisions that provide the best likelihood of survival.  You will rarely have accurate intel so logic will often fail.  On a percentage basis, following the piper with the rest of the group usually results in survival, but sometimes not. 

In the modern world survival is easy due to lack of predators and plenty of food.  We have become civilized.  We have the luxury of learning philosophy and logic.  We have been able to figure out what instincts we need to curtail in order to live together in large groups and get along with our neighbors.  But we still let some of our instincts slip in and guide us.  Bullying behavior is innate but deemed to be counterproductive in the modern world. 


Let me tell you a story from personal experience. 

I played football in high school.  At 5'11" and 165#, I was a skinny little Jewish kid but I could run pretty fast and I could tackle pretty well.  I was also pretty tough.  I played split end and free safety.  I was OK but I was not a starter. 

There was another kid named Matt Allred.  He was big and strong and could play very well.  He was about 5'10" and 230#.  He played full back.  We were teammates for four years. 

In the locker room and at practice guys are always talking smack.  Everybody criticizes everybody.  I had a few really good friends and I was generally a friend to all my teammates.  About a third of the team was black and maybe 10% were Hispanic.  Around 10% were Jewish.  We even had one guy that was Chinese.  Racially Derogatory language was quite common in our locker room. 

Everything else was fair game, also.  If you had a small penis you would hear about it.  If you dated an ugly girl you would hear about it.  If you had a cheap car you would hear about it.  If you took a hard hit you would hear about it.  If you seemed the least bit chicken on the football field you would hear about it.  If you were stupid or got bad grades you would hear about it.  If your dad was a construction worker you would hear about it.  If your sister was ugly you would hear about it.  If you wore an article of clothing that was un-cool you would hear about it. 

Often times you would get stuck with an embarrassing nickname.  One friend of mine was called "dead man" because he was caught sleeping in practice and ridiculed by the coach.  Another friend was known as "stick man" because he was so skinny.  Another guy was called pee-wee because he was small.  Another was called "sunshine" because he was born mildly cognitively impaired.  ( I originally wrote the word "retarded" but went back and changed it to cognitively impaired.  Man, it is so easy to be abusive with language.)  And this kind of stuff goes on and on. 

They called me "Levystien."  This is because I raised my hand when the coach asked who would be absent on Yom Kippur even though I was an Episcopalian.  The coach said, "Hmmm...Wallerstein, Bronstein, Rubinstein...and Levy....Levy, are you sure you is Jewish?  There ain't no stein in yo' name"  Instantly, guys started raising their hands saying, "I'm Kenny-stien...I'm Rutledge-stien...I'm Carlton-stein...etc.  After that everyone called me Levystien. 

All the guys in the locker room are trying to be tougher than everyone else.  Everyone is always jockeying for position as to who is the coolest.  Guys were particularly harsh on our trainer who was not very cool.  I felt sorry for him and wondered why he worked so hard to help us out. 

A lot of guys had respect for me because I was fearless and never backed down from contact on the football field.  I was also respected because I had good hands and I had a high IQ.  Actually, I was the only one on the team who was in honors classes and always on the dean's list but this caused me as much grief as it did respect. 

There were always guys on the team getting into fights and then making up.  There were repeated attempts to establish a pecking order even though no one really cared about that.  It was the activity of doing it that we were drawn to.  We were men's men.

But there were limits.

You were not supposed to comment on anyone's mom in any way ever.  You were also supposed to have each other's back against anyone from another school or another team, even if you did not really like each other.  You were not supposed to rat out or tell on anyone to a teacher or coach even if you were seriously wronged.  We did have some rules.  There were some lines that you did not cross.

When I read the rantings of Mr. Incognito it was clear to me that he crossed a lot of lines that no one on my team would have crossed.

Not even that idiot asshole Matt Allred.  He would pick on me and call me names and even physically push me around.  He was not the most popular guy on the team. His friends who were more popular never harassed me.  Well, except one guy named Ronald Printer (The names have been changed to protect the innocent.) who was more popular and was kind of a bully to me on a few occasions.  I don't know, maybe he was a bully.  I don't think he hated me.  I did stand up to him as his attacks were more intellectually legitimate compared to Matt's.  Maybe I said sarcastic jokes about him that he did not get.  Maybe I was the bully.  It is kind of hard to remember.  Matt Allred's behavior, on the other hand, was more clearly that of a low IQ bully who seemed to behave that way for no apparent reason. 

I am pretty sure his friends thought he was a waste of a human being so I let his taunts go in one ear and out the other.  The thing is that sometimes it was constant.  Sometimes he would not let up.  He would make the same stupid joke over and over again.  There was nothing I could do because he was much bigger than me. 

As an aside, he could not attend my ten year high school class reunion because he had to work waiting tables at a local restaurant.  After the party some of us went to his restaurant to see him.  He smiled and hugged me and seemed genuinely glad to see me.  I had graduated medical school and I was a successful physician but, for some strange reason, I did not feel vindicated.  I was not holding a grudge or anything.  I actually felt kind of glad to see him.  I know that might sound weird but that is how I felt.

There is no doubt in my mind that by today's standards you would describe Matt's behavior towards me as "bullying."  He ran with a somewhat more popular crowd than I ran with and he may have made it harder for me to be in that crowd, if I had wanted to be, but I don't remember feeling helpless.  I cannot remember thinking that I was a bad person or that everyone was against me or that I should kill myself.  His taunts did not make me depressed and my self-esteem was not injured.  My response was to get mad and try to hit him as hard as I could in practice whenever I had the chance.  Also, I wanted to be a better wide receiver in order to show him up.

I was always taking classes that were a grade level above my classmates so I had some classes with his older brother.  I really liked his older brother and he was very nice to me.  It may have been because of that or something else but I never really thought Matt disliked me.  I just thought he was behaving like a bully behaves and that was just the way it is.  Like a big brother might treat a little brother in a rough house kind of way.  In fact, I would bet a million dollars that if I was in a tight jam going up against some guys from W.T. White High School he would have my back in a heartbeat. 

One thing I know for sure is that he did not think of himself as a bully. 

You know, I am sure that I made jokes at his expense when I was with my more intellectual friends.  Maybe these jokes got back to him and maybe he felt abused by me.  Maybe he knew that I was more intelligent and he was sensitive to me thinking less of him.  I wonder if I was ever condescending directly to his face.  I was a teenager at the time. 

I wonder if I would have felt different had I suffered from medical depression.  I wonder if Matt suffered from medical depression.  If I had chronic low self-esteem and sometimes became delusional about how bad I am, I wonder what impact Matt's behavior  would have had on me.  I wonder if I would have gone to the hospital or if I would have been suicidal.  I wonder if my behavior had that effect on him.

I am kind of a type "A" personality with a healthy amount of narcissism.  I am the kind of guy who could suffer rigorous military training and never show weakness.  Actually, I did just that in the Corps of Cadets at Texas A&M.  I can see myself having been a Navy Seal or a Green Beret or something.  There is no way I am going to become suicidal due to any amount of so-called "bullying" in a locker room.  However, I cannot speak for someone who has anxiety or depression or was abused as a child or who is a substance abuser or whatever.

I think that Ritchie Incognito was a typical Matt Allred kind of idiot asshole who goes way overboard playing the male bonding locker room alpha male competition thing.  I think he sees no wrong in himself.  I think that most of the other Dolphins were like me in that they just tolerated it.  However, I think Jonathan Martin probably has a psychiatric condition such as depression and has battled with low self-esteem issues.  Richie probably should not have been so hard on him but Richie also, probably, had no idea.  


Over the course of human evolution those that survived have been bullies.  Why would that behavior have led to survival?

In the modern world we are civilized so we can relax and pursue more philosophical and scholarly goals.  However, we evolved out on the savannah in small groups where survival was the only issue.  The groups or teams that survived were able to form cohesive social groups that could hunt and take care of their own.  Think of them like little football teams or like little groups of Navy Seals.  Everyone needs to get on the same page and work together.  Those that are less able to be socially adept or are physically weak or not trust worthy or selfish or whatever literally threaten the survival of the team.  They must be taught to be a part of the team or weeded out.  Bullying behavior in this environment was a very effective means of creating a strong team that could survive. 

Homo sapiens then evolved larger and much more complex dorso-lateral pre-frontal cortexes that enabled us to think outside our innate brain programming.  We figured out that we could settle down and plant food and raise livestock.  Then, we grew large sedentary societies and figured out we needed to curtail some of our innate programming.  We figured out that bullying behavior was no longer very useful and we should stop it.   However, some of our other innate programs filtered in and caused us to then identify bullies as members of an out-group that should be treated with some hostility.  This is where poor old Richie Incognito comes in. 

He was just over doing what came natural to him.  He did not mean to hurt anyone. 

Incidentally, the low self esteem and medical depression that Jonathan Martin was suffering likely evolved in our species for the same reason.  Our environment changed to fast for natural selection to keep up.  Medical depression is likely a disease of an hypo-functional frontal cortex.  The same frontal cortex that grew too fast and enabled behavior like settling down and growing food and raising livestock. 

If the Incognito-Martin event had taken place 20,000 years ago in a small group of hunters and gatherers it would have, in fact, been helpful to the group. 

Here is a piece of information that will take this whole idea of bullying in a fundamentally different direction.  If, instead of ridiculing and punishing Mr. Incognito, we were to educate him to the potential effects of bullying behavior do you think he would act differently?  The clear answer to this question is YES. 

A recent UNICEF study demonstrated that education is the way to reduce this behavior.

It is very similar to racism in this regard.  The people who are racist are doing an innate behavior that they see no problem with.  When you educate them, their behavior changes.  Obviously, not in every single case but in the vast majority.

The Incognito-Martin case should have been handled internally.  The Dolphins should have brought the team together and educated everyone on how to behave in the locker room in a manner that would increase their chances of winning the Super Bowl.  Incognito and Martin were apparently not hating each other.  Martin was suffering in part due to Incognito's behavior and in part due to his psychiatric condition.  And Richie had no idea. 


Hopefully, this entire episode will result in locker rooms everywhere getting on top of this issue just like they have in classrooms everywhere.  However, I hate that this improvement came at the expense of Richie Incognito. 


OK, well, enough of this bullying stuff.  I have a cigar smoking football watching buddy of mine and I need to go tell him what a fat bald racist fuck he is. 


-Morgan Levy, MD