Evolution of Bullying

Bullying appears to be ubiquitous. We find it in every society that we look for it. Even amongst societies that explicitly state a strong dislike of violence and anger, we find subtle indirect bullying. Beyond the school yard, bullying happens in a wide range of settings, contexts, groups, and ages. The popular stereotype of bullies as being lonely social-misfits also doesn't appear to be true for many bullies who are socially skilled, and suffer from few, if any, mental or physical health problems. Add to this that bullies tend to be rated as dominant or popular and that they begin dating earlier and more often. Finally, bullying is partly heritable and has many animal analogues.

Apes fighting

We therefore believe that bullying is a natural part of our evolutionary history. That doesn't mean we condone it- rather, we want to change this undesirable part of human nature. An evolved behavior doesn't mean that the behavior can't be changed. It means that there is a predisposition for some people, under some circumstances, to behave in bullying because that sort of behavior was adaptive in our evolutionary past. But much like our preference for sugar, this doesn't make it morally good or unchangeable. It just means we have to be aware of this predisposition when we discuss bullying and anti-bullying strategies.

We believe that adolescents' personalities play a key role in predicting whether or not they engage in bullying. Particularly, we feel that personality traits that are related to psychopathy (callousness, lack of humility) may put adolescents at risk for being bullies. Conversely, being introverted and neurotic may place adolescents at the risk of being bullied. But parents, peers, and social environments also all contribute to bullying by helping to shape the costs and benefits of behaving like a bully.

If you are interested in learning more about the adolescent-parent relationships, or adolescents in general, or in participating in one of our studies, please feel free to contact the lab.

Created July 2012