SFU study finds biological explanation for youth bullying
A study from SFU researchers provides new evidence for why the widespread problem of bullying continues to persist. The study finds that youth bullying may be derived from evolutionary development, providing implications for approaching anti-bullying strategies in schools.
Supporters of evolutionary process theory (EPT) argue that there is a biological explanation for bullying – it may be an adaptive behavior that provides individuals with higher status. The results of this study show that bullies do gain specific benefits from their aggression.
“The results do not, by any means, suggest that bullying is ‘ok’ because it may have genetic explanations. Research consistently demonstrates negative implications of bullying in both the short- and long-term, and it should not be acceptable in our schools,” says SFU criminologist Jennifer Wong, lead researcher on the study. “However, this information is useful because it provides us with new options for addressing bullying behaviour.”
Researchers compared the psychological health of 133 Vancouver high school students involved in bullying interactions. Based on responses to a standard bullying questionnaire, students were divided into four groups: bullies, victims, bully/victims, and bystanders.
Bullies had the lowest levels of depression, the highest levels of self-esteem, and the highest levels of social status. The findings lend support to the suggestion that youth bullying confers social hierarchy advantages to bullies and may have evolved through sexual selection.
Recent research by Wong and other scholars shows that current bullying prevention programs have small but positive effects at reducing levels of victimization, but questionable effects at reducing levels of bullying. This may be because programs base their tactics on the premise that youth bullying is the outcome of maldevelopment, and believe that bullies can learn to stop their destructive behaviours.
“We advocate re-directing bullying tendencies to more productive and constructive channels, including supervised competitive activities. This would allow youths to demonstrate their prowess and establish rank in a safer environment without victims,” says Wong.
“Competition should not be limited to traditional athletic or academic activities, but should be expanded to include artistic and creative endeavours so that all students can find something for which they have an existing proficiency or an interest in developing competency. In other words, all students should have the opportunity to find some area in which they can compete and experience feelings of status.”
The study, “Survival of the Fittest and the Sexiest: Evolutionary Origins of Adolescent Bullying” was recently published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence. The study is a pilot project based on a small sample of students, and the results should be considered preliminary. The researchers are in the process of seeking funding to be able to implement this research in a much larger sample.