The Evolutionary Psychology of Bullying

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.

12 Comments on The Evolutionary Psychology of Bullying

  1. Marilyn Veincentotzs
    20th June 2009 at 7:10 am

    The argument, discussion, research, and analysis on why the bully does what he or they do, is placing too much attention and leading to a very dangerous path that leads to sympathy or justification for the bully behavior. The attention needs to paid more on the targets of these bullies. The targets are left with often debilitating psychological disorders, PTSD, physical impairments, and financial losses. No one is picking up the tab. The target is often left humiliated, depressed and suicidal. Stress that comes with being bullied can shorten the person’s life span by as much as ten years. Let’ focus on the targets and letting the bully know that the behavior will not be tolerated. Let’s Do Right At Work and in life. IF we can’t do it on our own then maybe more laws need to be enforced to make it more motivational to do so. The bully loves the attention he/she gets from everyone trying to “figure him/her out”. “How Organizations Empower Bully bosses” can be found on and shows targets how they can protect themselves, stay employed, and get a break while doing so.

  2. Anton
    26th June 2009 at 3:37 am

    I disagree with Marilyn that this approach shows sympathy for bullies. Just because something is natural, Does NOT mean that it is good. Civilization requires that people control their aggressive impulses and the impulse to bully should be NO EXCEPTION. Bullying is Always the Bully’s problem and NOT the victims problem! Adults need to impose standards for how children are to treat one another with punitive measures for kids who violate these standards.
    We also need to reach out to the victims of bullying because as marilyn pointed out, bully’s have a sort of narcissistic quality to them in that they enjoy the attention resulting from their behavior. Im also of the opinion that bullies should not be shown any mercy because showing mercy on them makes them look strong and encourages them to continue to victimize others.

  3. Jeb
    5th July 2009 at 2:56 pm

    Members of other tribes often look the same, share the same material culture and are often impossible to tell apart if you just use archeology.

    As a rule you generaly see an increase of ethnic symbols in material culture when tension is pre-existing and diffrence has a high value. Generaly material culture is distributed and shared amongst a large number of individual ethnic groups.

    Language may be the only identifying marker you have and even it can be shared across ethnic boundaries.

    I think this sort of stuff needs close observation on the ground first.

    Diffrence is certainly important in group formation as a means of identifying who gets to share resources. Repeated examples of exclusion, which are internal as well as external, demonstrate the importance and the reason for being in the group.

    Max Gluckman came up with a theory known as the peace in feud which is similar to youre idea of group formation.

    • jonny505
      18th October 2012 at 4:36 am

      This I find peculiar and wonder if such in-group semantics are counter-productive. Research shows that inter-tribal mating yields the greatest number of permutations for genetic mutation and thus the strongest offspring. Such a group’s future looks tenuous.

  4. dj chiesa
    7th November 2009 at 4:47 pm

    Anton noted that bullying is the bullys problem & not the victims problem. I strongly disagree for the following reasons:
    1.)If the bully is not stopped the aggression will escalate at some point in the bullys life. ie:life of crime, verbal and/or physical torment turns deadly. At what point does the bully over the course of his/her bullying became a tormentor and terrorist, terrorizing & tormenting their chosen subject:
    2.) If the bully continues successfully down his path into adulthood and lives in an environment/neighborhood that does not stop this behavior and encourages groups or “buddies” this only builds the power the bully continues to exert.
    3.) At this point the victim most certainly has the problem. The victim in a town/county wherever law enforcement has befriended or ignored the aggression/assaults whatever you chose to call it at this point; has to make a decision and that is where flight or fight of fear comes into play.
    4.) The victim(s) will either break down and leave/flight the area & move away more likely at their loss. or the victim(s) will have a mental breakdown, again the bullies have “won” empowered their behavior. Or the victim(s) will commit suicide or the victim(s) will fight back.
    5.) This last victim scenario is the least expected action, one never anticipated by the common bully/terrorist. Depending on the severity of the bullys actions the outcome of fight vs flight will be a tragic finish for all of society as the end result is the responsibility, blame, cause of all of society. As if society turns a blind eye to these bullys and ignores the cries/pleas of help from the victim then all of society is at fault. And if the end action of fight is to the death at the hands of a victim who most certainly suffers a mental breakdown depending on the length of time bullied then society is to blame and not the bully(s). How far can any humanbeing be tortured/tormented before he/she cracks/breaks down?
    6.) In conclusion the actions are not the bullys problem it is society’s. As is the case today, when this scenario occurs the victim is demonized in the media, by the prosecution (and the law both of which ignored thus aided & abeted the bullys/terrorist) and the stupid public, sentenced and the true demon is the bully we continue to ignore and the fault again is society. When someone cries for help not once, not twice, nor thrice or more at some point we as a society need to stop and pay attention as something smells rotten. We in America call is the passage of youth, toughen up. WRONG. We are suppose to be above the jackels, the packs of wild dogs we who have the intelligent brain are proving to be the most barbaric.
    7.) If the child is not taught right/wrong & if the adolescent’s bullying is not stopped the child become a brat who becomes a bully who becomes a punk who becomes a bully who becomes a tormentor who becomes a terrorist. Where do we stop it at what point? That behavior is not acceptable in an advanced educated homosapien society or is it?

  5. Luke
    12th January 2012 at 3:39 am

    Could someone please tell me the author of this article. regards, luke

  6. Tim Dean
    12th January 2012 at 8:21 am

    Hi Luke. The would be me. My details are on the What Is Ockham’s Beard page linked to at the top.

  7. jonny505
    18th October 2012 at 4:33 am

    I believe that strong fences make for strong, safe, and peaceful communities. What is a strong fence? It is a fence that does not yield to applied pressure. Teach the victims how to defend themselves, remove the incentive to bully. Destroying a strong fence would consume valuable resources. A proximate cause of bullying can be as simple as experiencing the pleasant and sadistic thrill of torturing someone weaker. Consequently such bullies are probably adept at finding weak victims. Apropos victims should also be taught to defend themselves by teaming-up with others (strength in numbers). By this token, walking home from school alone could be construed as inviting trouble.

  8. Steve Luke
    21st November 2012 at 11:47 pm

    The premise of evolutionary causation is not supported. The argument centers around the idea that evolution somehow has perpetuated bully characteristics, while the evidence contradicts it. Bullies tend to be loners, have small families, and are unpopular with the opposite sex. To believe bullying is evolutionary, you have to accept the idea that somehow the natural social response to bullies was vastly different up until people actually started noticing how people react to bullies. In other words, you have to believe that people have responded to bullies by liking them, enriching them, serving them, and reproducing with them in the past while simultaneously observing the opposite response in recorded history.

  9. Robert Hess
    28th November 2012 at 3:19 pm

    Steve, you wrote:

    “The argument centers around the idea that evolution somehow has perpetuated bully characteristics, while the evidence contradicts it. Bullies tend to be loners, have small families, and are unpopular with the opposite sex.”

    That misconstrues Tim’s argument. His basic idea, as I understand it, is that bullying behavior may well have been adaptive at the time this behavioral trait evolved – 50,000 -150,000 years ago. This claim is not contradicted by evidence showing that, today, bullying is maladaptive. Of course, it is, at least in our own Western culture.

    Like racism (which arguably just another form of bullying), school yard bullying seems a classic case of cultural evolution outpacing biological evolution. We humans now live in a world – a culture – for which we are, to varying degrees, physically, mentally and emotionally ill-equipped. Bullies are simply ill-equipped to a greater degree than others, and for cultural reasons: Lower socio-economic status, lack of education, etc.

    On this view, bullying is not learned behavior that can be programmed, but rather hardwired behavior that must be “unlearned,” ideally from a very young age. And we all know that this doesn’t always happen. Hence the continued pervasiveness of bullying.

  10. Doug Walling
    16th June 2014 at 11:14 pm

    Robert Hess you wrote;

    Like racism (which arguably just another form of bullying), school yard bullying seems a classic case of cultural evolution outpacing biological evolution. We humans now live in a world – a culture – for which we are, to varying degrees, physically, mentally and emotionally ill-equipped. Bullies are simply ill-equipped to a greater degree than others, and for cultural reasons: Lower socio-economic status, lack of education, etc.

    To imply that we are all ill-equipped and bullies are ill-equipped to a greater degree because of cultural reasons is at best irresponsible. Most bullies are very intelligent

    Why does everybody insist on stating that bullying is a learned behaviour from childhood abuse / lack of education or that bullies are loners and unpopular.
    All these experts are still focusing on what they understand in their own field and so inadvertently give a plausible reason for bullying and suggestions to tackle it.

    Is it not true that bullying is not confined to the human species, but to many other species that live together in groups / herds etc. So why do scientist’s insist on researching / tackling this problem as a human only problem. Can they not see that in humans 90% of bullying starts around the age of 8 – 9 yrs old, building rapidly and levelling out by 10 – 11 yrs and then reducing slowly to 14 – 15 yrs before rapidly falling off. Granted there are always some exceptions such as starting earlier or finishing later or never stopping. There has been lots of research and study of young males in the animal kingdom coming of age and these young males ( the bulls ) will fight for the right to breed to be the top dog, inevitably the females only mate with the biggest and strongest male’s around to give their offspring the best chance of survival, outsiders to the pack are driven away for this reason and the survival instinct of the unknown quantity like bulls that are sick / diseased or disabled or mutated in some way. It can’t be coincidence that the words bully and bulls suggest almost identical behaviour.
    So my own theory is that it is mainly down to how our bodies react to puberty and all the hormones and chemicals that suddenly start surging through our veins and arteries, changing our bodies and effecting the way our brain’s work. Scientist have proved that males with high levels of testosterone are the go getters, the achiever’s, the warrior’s, the athlete’s and the bosses, they seem to exude authority and dominance they command respect and obedience. Unfortunately testosterone controls to a great degree the fight or flight response, High levels for fighting and aggressiveness and low levels for survival and running away ( flight ). It would be dangerous to suggest we control the levels of this hormone, as we could end up causing irreparable damage not just to the individuals but maybe the entire human race. What we need right now is a lot of research into how we can train our young ones to positively deal with the changes in our bodies, minds and ultimately their behaviour, to understand what is happening inside our bodies and minds, psychically and mentally.
    Hi I’m Doug, 50 yrs and have been bullied all my life, I suffer from depression and took a level 3 psychology course a few years ago at college. I have always been interested in people’s behaviour and have always watched and studied people’s body language.
    All in all I could be called an amateur but my thoughts are from personal experience and observations as well as empirical research.


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  1. […] just not that clear though. Something we cannot overlook is that bullying as a key tool in evolutionary psychology, has been responsible for helping us develop hierachies of domination. For two million years, it […]

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