Too Popular to Bother With Bullying

Feedloader (Clickability)

Conventional wisdom says that it's the most troubled kids that resort to bullying. Not so, say two University of California at Davis sociologists in this month's issue of the American Sociological Review. Home life, grades, academic achievement, sports—they all have little to do with who bullies whom. Instead, it's where you fall on the social ladder that counts.

That won't be a surprise to many of us, including anyone who watched the movie Mean Girls, but with bullying occasionally turning deadly, it's important to know who's doing what and why. The sociologists used a survey of 3,722 students from the 8th, 9th and 10th grades in North Carolina to analyze patterns of bullying (defined as anything from hitting to name-calling to spreading rumors). They found that the higher up someone was in the social hierarchy, the more aggressive they were as a bully.

Up to a point, that is. The top two percent of kids in the social hierarchy were among the least aggressive on the bullying scale, on par with the kids at the very bottom. "The ones at the bottom don't have the social power or as much capacity to be aggressive whereas the ones at the top have all that power, but don't need to use it," says study co-author Robert Faris. If those at the top were to bully their peers, it could be a sign of weakness, Faris says. "And, it's possible that, at the highest level, they may receive more benefits from being pro-social and kind."

Students in the 98th percentile of the social hierarchy—the ones that just don't make it to the top—victimize others at a rate 28 percent greater than those on the bottom and 40 percent greater than those on the top. "Our findings underscore the argument that—for the most part—attaining and maintaining a high social status likely involves some level of antagonistic behavior," Faris says.

Girls were less often physically aggressive than boys, and they were more likely to bully boys than boys were to bully girls. But when girls and boys developed friendships, aggression levels decreased. The exception was when romance was involved; dating leads to an increase in bullying.

Get the latest Science stories in your inbox.