The Biology of Bullying

October 18, 2010

Brit Trogen


science in Seconds Brit Trogen


Almost everyone can remember falling victim to a schoolyard bully at one time or another. Perhaps you were the brainy kid in class, or a little too tall for your age. Perhaps your last name sounded like a popular contraceptive device. Whatever the reason, bullying has always been one of the dark sides of adolescence.

But aside from stopping small children from wearing overalls ever again (true story), what purpose could it possibly serve? When in doubt, look to the animal kingdom. 

Both macaques and chimps have had well-documented cases of bifftannenitis. Chimpanzees live in large, hierarchal communities dominated by an alpha male, but it’s the lower status males who most resemble the victims of bullying. As first observed by Jane Goodall in the 1960’s, “dominance displays” of intimidation often take place between male chimps seeking to raise their position in the hierarchy. And just like in humans, an individual who’s being picked on by one chimp can often be in it for the long haul: rock throwing, charging, and withholding the choicest food.

Granted, humans are much more complex than chimps in their social interactions. But as a study from the University of Groningen has recently showed, school children demonstrate surprisingly similar tendencies to our primate cousins, gaining social status through domination of victims. Bullies also choose victims who are weak and not well-liked, particularly by members of the opposite gender, in order to ensure their safety in the social order of the classroom. William Golding would be so proud.


But if, as these studies indicate, bullying is just an inate impulse for dominance, why is it that recent years have seen such a spike in its severity and spread? We can thank Mark Zuckerburg for that one. Cyberbullying is now one of the leading forms of victimization… And unfortunately, one that can result in severe mental and physical health problems later in life.


So just like eating each other's tics and flinging feces, maybe it's about time we put some serious effort into letting this one go.




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