Faculty Spotlight

Professor receives surprise media attention

November 05, 2015

This summer, Jennifer Wong received strong media attention for her recently published study on bullying. The study found that bullying may be derived from evolutionary development, providing implications for approaching anti-bullying strategies in schools.

CRIM NEWS met with Wong to discuss the impact of her study, and her reaction to the media’s response.

Q: You were hit by a surprise media storm this summer. Tell me about the experience.

A: The media interest in this paper was completely unanticipated. The paper was based on a pilot study that I conducted with my Honours student Justin Koh. Justin worked very hard on this project and I was so proud of him! However, given that it was such a small sample I wasn’t expecting a lot of outside interest in the paper.

Shortly after publication of the article, a National Post reporter contacted me to say that he’d seen it and had a few questions. I thought it was important to help clarify the objectives and results of the study, so we had a brief phone discussion about it. A few days later the story was published, and I woke up to about 10 voicemails and emails requesting interviews. The requests kept pouring in over the next couple of weeks and it was quite overwhelming and difficult to keep up with. I received 43 unique requests in total, from local, national, and international (e.g., Australia, Brazil) outlets, with many of the reporters contacting me multiple times if I didn’t respond quickly enough.

This was a valuable learning experience for me. The next time I have a potentially controversial paper about to be published, I’ll prepare ahead of time. Of course – this may have been my 15 minutes so who knows if it will happen again!

Q: What was the main takeaway from this research paper? Why do you think it was so significant for the media and the public?

A: Bullying is seen cross-culturally, worldwide, and it is certainly not uncommon. Most people understand (or think they understand) what bullying is, and have some kind of direct experience with it – either as a bully, a victim, or a bystander. Because bullying is seen across so many different cultures, it makes us wonder whether there is a more deep-seated reason for this behaviour, rather than being, for example, a socially-learned type of aggression.

In this study we used the framework of evolutionary psychology theory to try to explain why bullying occurs; this theory suggests that species evolve to exhibit certain behaviours because these behaviours increase their ability to survive and reproduce. We adapted our measures to fit with the junior high school setting and focused on self-esteem, depression, social anxiety, and social status (i.e., popularity). The basic idea here is that superior mental health (high self-esteem and low depression) and dating opportunities (low social anxiety and high social status) represent “success” in the adolescent environment.

Based on responses to a standard bullying questionnaire, we divided the students into four groups: bullies, victims, bully/victims, and bystanders. We found that bullies had the best mental health of the four groups, as well as the highest social status. These results, though preliminary, give us an indication that bullies may be gaining advantages and rewards (e.g., popularity) from their aggressive behaviours, which helps explain why these behaviours are so common. The findings represent a departure from the conventionally-held wisdom that bullying is a dysfunctional behaviour perpetrated by individuals suffering from low self-esteem and problems at home.

Q: This isn’t the first time you’ve studied the impact of bullying. What was the focus of your previous research?

A: I focused on school bullying for my doctoral dissertation. One aspect of that research involved an examination of the effects of early bully victimization on the development of delinquency. In that project I used a large, nationally-representative sample of students in the U.S. and found that early victimization was significantly predictive of six out of ten types of delinquent behaviours over the following six years. This was an important finding, because the preponderance of bullying research focuses on delinquency outcomes with respect to bullies as opposed to victims.

Another aspect of my dissertation research was a meta-analysis of the effectiveness of school-based bullying prevention programs. This project involved summarizing all of the existing, rigorous program evaluations on bullying prevention programs, to come up with an overall assessment of their effectiveness. I also examined individual program components (e.g., parent involvement, multi-session curricula, whole school policies against bullying) to find out what components are linked to stronger evidence of program success. Unfortunately, the meta-analysis showed fairly weak effectiveness of these programs, suggesting that much more can and should be done to prevent school bullying.

Q: How does this research help us understand the impact of bullying and why it must be prevented?

A: These results do not, by any means, suggest that bullying is "ok" because it may have evolutionary explanations. Research consistently demonstrates negative implications of bullying in both the short- and long-term, and it should not be acceptable in our schools. It’s important to understand all that we can about why school bullying occurs, so that we can design better and more effective prevention and intervention programs. Many of the current programs that are not particularly successful may suffer because they base their tactics on premise that bullying is outcome of maldevelopment and believe bullies can learn to cease their destructive behaviours. If indeed some bullies are engaging in aggressive behaviours because they are gaining advantages from doing so, prevention strategies can be developed to help remove these advantages (for example, by changing school norms so that bullies are not admired by their classmates), or perhaps by re-directing bullying tendencies to more productive and constructive channels. This latter approach might involve increasing the availability and types of supervised competitive activities, which would allow youths to demonstrate prowess and establish rank in a safer environment without victims.

Q: What next steps will you take from here?

A: My hope is to use the results from this pilot study to conduct a more extensive project on the same topic. I recently applied for a sizeable grant to study this issue in a much larger sample of schools and classrooms; my fingers are crossed that I’m successful with the funding! If so, this project will begin next year.

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Further Reading

  • Wong, J. S., & Schonlau, M. (2013). Does bully victimization predict future delinquency? A propensity score matching approach. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 40(11), 1184-1208.

  • Koh, J.B., &Wong, J. S. (2015). Survival of the fittest and the sexiest: Evolutionary origins of adolescent bullying. Journal of Interpersonal Violence. July, 9, 2015.