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Are We Genetically Programmed to Bully?

In my opinion, the short answer is “no.”

However, like all things, this is debatable and a recent article in The National Post newspaper in Canada raises some intriguing questions and supplies thought-provoking research (1).  Recent studies showed that “bullies have highest self-esteem, social status, lowest rates of depression.” This is confirmed in previous studies that foreground the popularity and status of bullies (2).  However, what’s new is the conclusion reached. Journalist Tom Blackwell writes:

  • A just-published Canadian study has added heft to a provocative new theory about bullying: that the behaviour is literally in the genes, an inherited trait that actually helps build social rank and sex appeal. If accepted, the hypothesis rooted in evolutionary psychology could transform how schools confront the persistent and often-shattering problem.

Blackwell looks at a study done by Jennifer Wong, a criminology professor at Simon Fraser University. Wong studied high-school students with an eye to examining the way in which bullying can “establish rank” and assist in “climbing the social ladder.” Rather than simply condemn bullying, she looked at the way bullying might actually work as a “tool.” Wong comments: “Most anti-bullying programs try to change the behaviour of bullies — and they usually don’t work, says Wong, who reviewed the literature on program outcomes for her PhD thesis. That’s probably because the behaviour is biologically hard-wired, not learned.” I would like to take the results of Wong’s study and put them under a different lens in order to consider an alternative conclusion.

I would argue that Wong’s research potentially supports a more disturbing conclusion and that is: Our society privileges bullies.

But before we examine that idea, let us look at one more important study that raises the question about whether or not we’re genetically programmed to bully:

Further supporting Wong’s position is separate research done by Professor Anthony Volk in the Social Sciences Faculty at Brock University. In his study done with colleagues, they found that the bullies among 178 surveyed teenagers “got more sex than everyone else.” Professor Volk reaches the insightful conclusion that “The average bully isn’t particularly sadistic or even deeply argumentative,” rather, “What they really are is people driven for status.”

To my mind, this does not confirm genetic programming necessarily; instead, it confirms for me that we are a society built on a bullying foundation.

How is that possible? We have so many government issued documents, school statements, codes of conduct, rules in place, initiatives, foundations and they all say: Bullying is bad and will be punished. They even say: Don’t be a bystander. However, it doesn’t take long for children in school to realize that this is a rule only for children. It’s a rule like the one about drinking alcohol: not allowed in childhood, celebrated in adulthood. Same with bullying. And this is why we have laws for children who bully, but we do not have the same laws for adults.

My July 14th “Rewarding Adults Who Bully” offers examples of exactly how this hypocritical dynamic works whereby we tell children an emphatic “no bullying,” at the same time we increase the status of adult bullies in society. And even more powerful, when children heed our directive to not be bystanders and speak up about adult bullies, they can pay a terrible price: be questioned about their perceptions and their motivations, be positioned as liars, be seen as hurting the adult’s reputation. Children learn very quickly that being a bystander, when it comes to adult bullies, is a key “tool” for social survival.

Let’s consider an analogy. In a racist society, a child quickly learns that showing empathy to bullies’ targets is socially unacceptable. Whereas, if the child participates in racist conduct then she will belong to the group that has status, power, privilege and probably more sex. This child is less likely to be depressed or have low self-esteem or low social status. Survival in a racist society may well require behaving like a racist. Survival in a bullying society may well require behaving like a bully.

The problem with a genetic theory is it does not account for why bullies are in the minority if we are all programmed to behave this way for status. At the same time, our shocking failure to contain bullying despite our many, many documents and initiatives, so that is on the rise, supports the ugly truth that when adults bully, we actually condone and enable it. Furthermore, in the adult world, research done by the Workplace Bullying Institute provides extensive data on how the bully’s target often loses or leaves his job, not the bully (3).   Bullies are more likely to be promoted (3). 

The admission that we are a society that privileges bullies, although a bitter pill to swallow, gives us the remarkable opportunity to change, just like we changed from a racist society with the Civil Rights Movement.
Now it’s time for Civil Rights Movement for Children. If they were raised in a society that protected them from adult bullying, maybe they would grow up and learn that fairness and compassion were the ways to succeed, gain status, and have healthy self-esteem.

Bibliography:

1 Tom Blackwell, “Provocative new study finds bullies have highest self esteem, social status, lowest rates of depression,” The National Post, July: 2015. http://www.nationalpost.com/m/wp/blog.html?b=news.nationalpost.com%2F%2Fhealth%2Fprovocative-new-study-finds-bullies-have-highest-self-esteem-social-status-lowest-rates-of-depression
2 John Schinnerer, Ph.D, “‘Help, My Coach is a Bully!’: The Consequences of Verbally Abusive Coaching”: http://www.selfgrowth.com/articles/Help_My_Coach_is_a_Bully_The_Consequences_of_Verbally_Abusive_Coaching.html; Devyne Lloyd, “What Happens when Bullies Become Adults?,” Michigan State University, School of Journalism blog “The New Bullying,” April 2012: http://news.jrn.msu.edu/bullying/2012/04/01/bullies-as-adults/
3 http://workplacebullying.org/multi/pdf/WBI-2014-US-Survey.pdf
4 Peggy Drexler, “Are Workplace Bullies Rewarded for Their Behavior,” Forbes, July 2013: http://www.forbes.com/sites/peggydrexler/2013/07/10/are-workplace-bullies-rewarded-for-their-behavior/

Bullying Expert

With a PhD in Comparative Literature, Fraser is a passionate educator, researcher and writer. Her most recent book, Teaching Bullies, is an exploration of what happens when the teacher or coach is the bully. Drawing on psychology, psychiatry, sports journalism and neuroscience, she argues that bullying done by adults—namely emotional abuse—does such significant harm it should join sexual and physical abuse in criminal code.  Her new book, Teaching Bullies: Zero Tolerance on the Court or in the Classroom, is available now!