The roots of bullying in school may be in human evolution, say a pair of evolutionary psychology researchers.
Published this month in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, “Survival of the Fittest and the Sexiest – Evolutionary Origins of Adolescent Bullying” examines adolescent bullying through the lens of evolutionary psychology theory (EPT). EPT is the concept that species evolve to continue or exhibit certain traits and behaviors because those traits increase the ability to survive and reproduce. The co-authors, Jun-Bin Koh, BA and Jennifer S. Wong, PhD, both of Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia, propose that bullying is, in fact, an evolutionary development.
The researchers posited that humans have adapted bullying behaviors to gain better sexual opportunities and for physical protection, as well as for promoting better mental health. For the purposes of the study, questionnaires were given to 135 adolescents ages 13 to 16 who attended a secondary school in metro Vancouver, British Columbia. Four groups were established based on the students involvement in bullying interactions: bullies, victims, bully/victims, bystanders.
Then, four dependent variables were studied: depression, self-esteem, social status, and social anxiety. The results indicated that bullies had the most positive scores on mental health issues and were considered to be in the highest social rank in the environment of the school. There were, however, strong differences in comparisons between bullies and bully/victims.
The scientists established that bullying is a widespread and common occurrence in Canada, where at least one in three adolescents have reported being bullied once or twice in the past two months. Also, 31% of girls and 41% of boys reported having bullied someone at least once in the past two months. The researchers noted that 43% of girls and 40% of boys reported being victimized by a bully. 80% of Canadian parents and non-parents agree that bullying is one of the most serious problems young people have to face.
Multiple studies have revealed that the detrimental psychosocial effects of bullying on children are numerous, including higher social anxiety, increased levels of depression and suicide, lower self-esteem, aggression, and delinquency. Other studies have found that victims also suffer headaches, backaches, and stomach aches twice as often as their non-bullied peers. Scholars explain that victims are 1.5 to 7.5 times more likely to experience loneliness, nervousness, and helplessness.
Koh and Wong say that the “advantageous variation”, or the element that will increase a person’s ability to survive, associated with bullying is the fact that youth bullies carry their reputation with them, thereby being perceived as aggressors, and being less likely to be targeted for aggression from others. Past research has also found that this makes bullies psychologically strong.
Heritability is another advantageous trait that some twin and animal studies have shown might be related to bullying. Because bigger, stronger, more dominant people can be more aggressive toward smaller people, this propensity can lead to the development of a social ranking system, which is one of the fundamental principles of biology.
The last element of natural selection is that individuals with an advantageous, heritable trait are more likely to produce offspring than those who do not. Because it has been found that bigger and more aggressive individuals engaged in sex more often and at a younger age than smaller individuals, it is possible that bullies have increased sexual opportunities.
But, writes Yanan Wang of The Washington Post, this all seems unfair — bullies are happier and feel better about themselves than the smaller kids on the playground? Still, the information could be important to those who develop bullying prevention programs because most such programs have been based on the assumption that bullies are troubled and alienated from the core population of their schools.
Lead researcher Jennifer Wong said bullies come out on top. But, since her study showed that the behaviors of a bully are innate, not learned, schools may begin to think of ways these tendencies could be channeled towards more wholesome activities. Perhaps that means more activities are needed that allow for competition so that the longing for supremacy can be satisfied, or a change in the cultures of schools that would begin to define bullying as a social stigma.
“I’m absolutely not suggesting that we accept bullying as a natural thing,” Wong said. “We need to change the general school ethos so that bullies don’t gain any social status points from hurting others.”
One critic of the study, Rob Frenette, a co-founder of support group Bullying Canada, said the study was a step backward.
“We don’t want parents who have a child who is considered a bully to think, ‘Well, it’s something they’re born with and there’s nothing we can do to adjust their behavior,’” he said.