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Bully or Bystander? It Could Be in the Genes

New study says bullying may be nature, not nurture

(Ansgar Photography/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Often, the traditional image of the schoolyard bully is of a troubled child lashing out at others because they don’t know how else to handle their emotions. But a controversial new study challenges the idea that bullying is behavior that can be learned or unlearned: in fact, it may have roots in the bully’s genes.

After surveying a group of high schoolers in Vancouver, Canada, researchers from Simon Fraser University found that bullies were least likely to be depressed, had higher self-esteem and were at the top of the social food chain.

“Humans tend to try to establish a rank hierarchy,” Jennifer Wong, the criminology professor who led the study, told Tom Blackwell for the National Post. “When you’re in high school, it’s a very limited arena in which you can establish your rank, and climbing the social ladder to be on top is one of the main ways.…Bullying is a tool you can use to get there.”

Wong suggests that bullies might have a genetic predisposition to something like pack animal instincts, where the strongest and most domineering individuals hold the most social power in the group. For the study, Wong asked a group of 138 high schoolers a series of questions and divided the results into categories of bully, bystander, victim and victim-bully. Wong found that bullies made up about 11 percent of the group and ranked highest in self-esteem and social status. The bullies also scored lowest on depression.

But the hypothesis that bullying comes from nature, not nurture, is troubling to some who are afraid it could excuse bad behavior.

“This is kind of stepping backward and that’s concerning,” Rob Frenette, co-founder of the anti-bullying group Bullying Canada, told Blackwell. “I 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.’ ”

While the results aren’t definitive, Wong hopes to repeat the study with a much larger sample size, Blackwell writes. In the meantime, she suggests that schools and anti-bullying programs focus not just on punishing bullies, but to try to channel their energy and instincts towards constructive, competitive activities.

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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