Somehow, it seems unfair.
But a new study called “Survival of the Fittest and the Sexiest” published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence has found that adolescent bullies have higher self-esteem and social status, as well as lower rates of depression and social anxiety. From an evolutionary standpoint, these combined measures also make the meanest in the playground pack the ones with the greatest sex appeal.
This probably comes at no surprise to anyone who’s seen Mean Girls. And it could be important to the development of new bullying prevention programs, which have long operated on the assumption that bullies are troubled kids alienated from a school’s core population.
“The bullies come out on top,” said Jennifer Wong, the study’s lead researcher. Her surveys, conducted on 135 Vancouver high school students, indicate that bullying is biological, as kids who have dominating tendencies and a desire to rise to the top of social hierarchies often victimize others in order to get there.
Wong came to these conclusions by administering questionnaires that allowed participants to be categorized into one of four groups: bullies, victims, bully/victims (individuals who bully but also report being victimized themselves) and bystanders. Within these categories, the bullies reported the best self-evaluations and the bully/victims the worst.
Since her research indicates that bullies are characterized by behaviors that are innate rather than learned, Wong said, schools might want to consider ways of channeling those tendencies towards more healthy activities instead of attempting to quell bullies’ innate drive to dominate.
One solution could be to offer high school students more avenues for competition, so that bullies can satisfy their thirst for supremacy in less harmful ways. Another possibility is changing the culture in schools to create a social stigma against bullying.
“I’m absolutely not suggesting that we accept bullying as a natural thing,” Wong said. “We need to change the general school ethos so that bullies don’t gain any social status points from hurting others.”
She noted that her findings are limited by a small sample size that lacks ethnic diversity and by the possibility of omitted variables, such as how psychopathology may influence a child’s depression level and likelihood of becoming a bully.
Rob Frenette, co-founder of support group Bullying Canada, told the National Post that the study is “stepping backward.” The bullies he has encountered have always been compelled by underlying issues, such as domestic violence.
“We don’t want parents who have a child who is considered a bully to think, ‘Well, it’s something they’re born with and there’s nothing we can do to adjust their behavior,'” he said.