Bullying all the way to the top

Bullying may be an evolutionary behaviour to gain advantage over peers. - Image by Momo Lin

A recent SFU study found that bullies have the lowest levels of depression, the highest levels of self-esteem, and the highest social status. 

The study counters what the researchers believe to be a commonly held view — that the source of bullies’ aggression is that they are victims themselves. Often their behaviour is theorized to stem from them being maladjusted, having low self-esteem, or coming from a dysfunctional family.

However, the study found that some bullies, whom researchers called “pure bullies,” were genetically inclined toward the behaviour, as it gained them advantages over their peers.

“We were testing the idea of evolutionary theory [and the] idea that bullies evolved to exhibit certain behaviours, because those behaviours increased their ability to survive and reproduce,” explained Jennifer Wong, associate professor in SFU’s School of Criminology.

Human aggression has been known to be instrumental to our ancient ancestors for survival — in order to defend their territory, protect their young, and to attract the most ideal mate.

The researchers posed the question: is bullying an evolutionary behaviour — and is it perhaps a contemporary version of a thousand year-old trend of aggression?

The pilot study surveyed a total of 135 students from a local Vancouver high school. More tests are needed to determine whether or not the results are consistent.

“[The research] is really there to help understand why bullying is occurring,” said Wong. Future plans to research bullying at SFU will include a larger and more diverse sample, hopefully across multiple schools, and possibly with an expanded questionnaire to look at the differences within the different types of bullying.

In an interview with Global News, Rob Frennette, from Bullying Canada, expressed concerns around how parents and victims of bullying were going to interpret the information, and worried about the possibility of bullies thinking that they cannot change because it is in their genetics.

Wong clarified that a bullying gene was not what the results of the study was suggesting, and neither that bullying was somehow okay because it may have evolutionary explanations. 

She added that if it was not possible to completely suppress the tendency to bully, perhaps those with bullying tendencies could be re-directed to something more productive and constructive.

Wong suggested that having more supervised competitive activities that will allow youth to “demonstrate their prowess and establish rank in a safer environment that doesn’t have victims.”

The more that can be understood about the causes for bullying, the better the researchers will be able to generate solutions and ways to intervene and prevent bullying from happening.