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Is there a secret bully inside all of us?
A new study has found that the reason youth bullying persists is because the seeds of it may be found in our genes due to evolution. Titled "Survival of the Fittest and the Sexiest," the study by researchers at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada, also found that bullies had the lowest levels of depression, the highest levels of self-esteem and the highest social status. They studied 133 students in grades 8-10 at a secondary school in the Vancouver area, comparing psychological health among four groups: bullies, victims, bully/victims and bystanders.
"I've been hearing talk about it being a provocative and controversial study and people expressing concern that bullying could be a behavior that can't be changed if it has these origins, but I want to assure people that by no means does it mean that,'' SFU criminologist Jennifer Wong, the study's lead researcher, told TODAY.com. "This is helping us get at the reasons and causes, and it helps us define intervention programs to be more effective."
The study supports the evolutionary process theory that there is a biological explanation for bullying because bullies gain benefits from being aggressive. That is contrary to the theory that bullies are often exhibiting this type of behavior because they have difficult home or school lives or have been the target of bullying or harassment themselves.
"Like many of my colleagues, I am quite stunned by this study,'' University of Illinois psychology professor and bullying expert Dorothy Espelage told TODAY.com. "My research clearly indicates that family and school climate matters in the demonstration of bullying. The study includes a small sample and is limited to one high school. This researcher is being very irresponsible in her take on the field and the efforts to prevent bullying."
The study suggests that evolutionary process theory may help explain why people who come from stable homes and are not maladaptive still become bullies. Wong also noted that bullying can be found in cultures across the world, so it may not be something kids are learning from their local culture but instead is an innate tendency.
"Our ancestors used aggression to do things like defend territory and attract mates to produce the best offspring, so it may be that bullying is a contemporary way that people are expressing this drive,'' Wong said. "For kids in high school establishing rank, bullying gives them advantages, which is why they keep doing it."
The study found that bullies enjoy better mental health than the other groups, but whether that is because of the behavior itself or the result of being put in a higher social rank by being a bully is unclear. Research by Wong has found that while current anti-bullying programs do make a difference in levels of victimization, they haven't made a concrete impact on reducing the levels of bullying.
Rather than trying to teach bullies to stop an innate behavior, the researchers suggest that the aggression they exhibit should instead be funneled into other activities.
"We're advocating redirecting bullying tendencies to more productive channels,'' Wong said. "We'd be suggesting expanding current types of supervised competition, particularly a lot of sports, but also artistic activities and creative endeavors that allow all kids to establish rank and experience feelings of status without having to resort to bullying and creating victims."
Espelage disagrees with the notion that instances of bullying are not reduced by current anti-bullying programs.
"In our work we do reduce bullying through our social-emotional learning programs when they are implemented with fidelity and the school climate is positive,'' Espelage said.
The researchers stressed that the results should be considered preliminary because of the small sample size of students, and they are in the process of seeking funding to conduct the study with a much larger group.