Bullying is tragic. And evidently it’s not uncommon (although, surprisingly, the Internet doesn’t seem to know whether incidence of bullying in the schoolyard is on the up or down over the past several years – can anyone enlighten me?).
But are our anti-bullying programmes working to combat bullying? Apparently some are, but even the most effective programmes only marginally reduce bullying; none seem able to drive it out of the schoolyard altogether. Why?
Well, here’s one theory: some children are biologically predisposed to bullying because such behaviour lent their ancestors a selective advantage in our evolutionary past.
Let me elaborate. In times where resources are limited – which is basically our entire evolutionary past, including today in many respects – those children who are able to secure the most resources will be the most likely to survive to adulthood. This behaviour is common amongst animals, where even siblings violently compete for parental attention, even to the point of siblicide.
There are multiple strategies for surviving childhood that vary depending on a number of factors, such as an individual’s physical stature, propensity towards risk taking, ability to engage in social coercion etc. One strategy that can prove successful particularly for larger, stronger and/or more aggressive males is to attain and maintain a high social status through physical bullying. A parallel with females may be based more about social and emotional manipulation of others.
Note also that bullies tend to be either loners, who are unable to maintain strong social ties with other individuals – possibly through lack of trust or because their antisocial tendencies forced them into bullying in order to assert themselves – or they are a high status individual within a close knit group of followers. The stereotypical bully with his grovelling sidekicks is an anecdotal example of this.
Also note that being a grovelling sidekick is another viable strategy for surviving childhood, particularly for physically weaker males; partner with a domainant high status individual and support them, receiving their protection in return. In some cases it can either be a bully or be-bullied situation that drives them to parter with a bully.
Also, the habit of forming into cliques within the schoolyard might indicate another survival mechanism: team up with a small close knit group of individual whom you trust and can provide with mutual support and protection, particularly from bullies. Being a part of such a group could improve chances of surviving the perils of childhood competition compared to going it solo. However, expand the group too large, and it might become too difficult to maintain effective relations with all the other group members and monitor their behaviour, thus possibly eroding trust and group cohesion. Hence the tendency towards multiple smaller groups rather than broad cohesion amongst all children in the playground.
Now, notice that all the theories so far operate on the ultimate level – i.e. none of the above would necessarily enter into the reasoning or motivation of any individuals engaged in any of these practices. As such, there must be proximate mechanisms that encourage such fitness-enhancing behaviour.
One might include the propensity for children to pick on the most distinctive or alien looking child to pick on. This could be a mechanism that has evolved to identify members of other tribes (presumably by virtue of their different appearance, behaviour or language/accent) and exclude them so one’s own tribe’s members receive the maximum amount of resources.
So, why might our current anti-bullying programmes not be as effective as hoped? Perhaps we’re targetting bullying with the wrong preconceptions in mind. I’ve read through a lot of anti-bullying sites that assume bullying is a learned behaviour, developmental disorder, an aberration of behaviour or a failure to appreciate the effects one has on one’s peers. However, if bullying is a behaviour that some individuals will be predisposed towards because of evolutionary reasons, then it might be counter productive to assume it’s entirely learned and that it can be simply deprogrammed. Some bullies might be entirely aware (or conveniently able to block out) their empathetic responses to their victims.
Furthermore, it might turn out to be a fruitful line of research investigating how to co-opt other evolved proximate mechanisms to counter bullying rather than attack it head on. For example, focus on the group dynamic and convince the bully or bullying group to include the victims within their group. In-group boundaries are flexible, and can be manipulated – as one sees when sports fanatics who are bitter rivals at the league level become allies at the national or international level.
There may well be many other approaches that don’t deny that bullying is to some extent natural but use other natural proclivities to counter it. (And need I remind you: just because something is natural, doesn’t make it good.) If so, I hope these are discovered and put into practice soon.