Are bullies hard wired (genetically) to be abusive to their peers or are most bullies the product of their environment (abusive parents, emotional problems etc.)? This is already turning out to be an age old question among psychologists. A new study seems to lend credence to the idea that bullies behave the way they do because they really want it, and of course because of the rewards. The study published by Canadian researchers found that high school bullies had the highest self-esteem, status and lowest rates of depression.

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Image: Stanfield

The team at Simon Fraser University surveyed 135 teenagers from a Vancouver high school. The participants were asked to fill out an ordinary questionnaire that asked questions like “hit, kicked or shoved”. Based on the response, the teenagers were grouped as  bullies, bystanders, victims or victim-bullies. A victim-bully is what psychologists call a person turned bully because he was bullied himself. The study found that the bullies, which comprised 11% of participants,  scored highest on self-esteem and social status and lowest on depression.

Previously, Tony Volk, a Brock University psychologist who helped pioneer the genetic theory of bullying found teenage bullies got the more sex than everyone else. “The average bully isn’t particularly sadistic or even deeply argumentative,” he says. “What they really are is people driven for status.”

The Fraser study adds weight to the hypothesis that bullying is in fact an evolutionary adaption. But do bullies really have it made? That may be hard to sell to anti-bully advocates and non-profits.

“This is kind of stepping backward and that’s concerning,” said Rob Frenette, co-founder of the advocacy and support group Bullying Canada. “I 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.’ ”

More research is definitely warranted, but until then maybe school masters might want to rethink their bullying policies. The researchers at Fraser say that punishing bullies often doesn’t work and may actually enhance their status. Changes like giving them ways to more positively channel their aggressive bent might render better results.

“These kids aren’t stupid, they know what they’re doing, they’re doing it for a reason,” Volk says. “We’re not saying give up on punishment necessarily, but what about the carrot?”

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