Bullying in school, at home, and on the savanna:
A guide for the science-minded
© 2008-2013 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved
In the old days, people took a laissez-faire approach to bullying in school.
Bullying was considered a normal part of growing up. Kids were left to work things out for themselves.
But the evidence suggests that bullying isn’t a healthy part of childhood.
Yes, bullying is found all over the world (Nansel et al 2004;
Sentenac et al 2013; Wang et al 2013). It even exists among nonhuman
primates (see below).
But bullying isn’t just another form of aggressive conflict. It’s about repeatedly harassing a vulnerable, lower-status victim.
These victims may not be in a position to “work” anything “out,”
and they may suffer long-term consequences. Kids who get bullied are
more likely to suffer from clinical anxiety, depression, and feelings of
social isolation. They are more likely to avoid school, and the chronic
stress makes them physically ill (Nansel et al 2004). As adults, they
are 3-5 times more likely to suffer from anxiety, panic disorder, and
agoraphobia (Copeland 2013).
And while we often think of bullies as as aggressive peers on the
playground, some bullies are much closer to home. In a recent study of
more than 3500 American kids, researchers found that one third of all
children had been victimized by a sibling in the past year, and these
kids experienced higher rates of mental health problems (Tucker et al
So bullying casts a long shadow, and victims aren't the only ones to suffer poor mental health. Studies suggest that some
kids who bully others on a daily basis are at a greater risk of developing psychiatric problems,
including antisocial personality disorder.
at school is associated with disturbing moral rationalizations, like
the belief that victims deserve to be treated “like animals.”
But it doesn’t have to happen. I’ve read quite a bit of the research,
and I’m convinced that we can go a long way to protect victims and
greatly reduce the prevalence of bullying.
I also suspect we can prevent kids from becoming bullies in the first place.
To do this, however, we need to understand bullies: What they do,
why they do it, and how they differ from other kids. In these pages, I
review the scientific evidence about bullying. This includes articles
• How to prevent bullying
• The track records of programs designed to stop bullying in school
• Understanding the “pure” bully
• The problems of bullies who are frequently the victims of otherbullies
• The link between bullying in school and the development of psychiatric disorders
• The ways that bullies reason about moral issues
And here (below) I provide an overview of bullying and consider perhaps the most important point of all:
Isn’t bullying really about dominance hierarchies?
If bullies are “cool” or popular, then we can’t expect to stop
bullying in school by changing the behavior of a few individuals. We’ll
have to change the way that everyone—-bystanders included—-reacts to
Definitions: Bullying isn’t just another form of aggression
Bullying--in school or anywhere else-—isn’t merely about aggression.
Aggressive kids might get into a lot of fights. But they aren’t
necessarily “out to get” specific victims. Nor do they focus on people
perceived as weaker or more vulnerable.
By contrast, bullying is about repeatedly and deliberately
intimidating, harassing, humiliating, or physically harming a victim
(Glew et al 2000).
This definition applies to both
• “direct bullying,” which involves physical threats and assaults, and
• “relational bullying,” which includes name-calling, social snubbing, and the spreading of malicious rumors
It also applies to cyberbullying, in which kids are bullied via
threats or humiliating messages on the internet and other information
This sounds very modern and high tech. But of course bullying isn’t a new problem. It isn’t even a specifically human problem.
Bullying on the savanna
If you want to see bullies at work, watch a troop of cercopithecine monkeys—like savanna baboons.
These monkeys live in dominance hierarchies, and they spend much
of their time threatening each other. Harassing each other. Making life
Social-climbing males are part of the trouble. Just before a male
reaches adulthood, he must leave his natal group and find a new one. As
new members, these males typically occupy the lowest rungs of the
social ladder. But, over time, an ambitious male can work his way up the
How does he do it? It may depend on several factors—-his
intrinsic fighting ability, his length of residency in the new group,
his ability to form coalitions with other males.
But the important point is this: Baboons frequently "show off"
their dominance status by threatening and harassing lower-ranking
And it’s not just a guy thing. Female cercopithecines have their
own, kin-based hierarchies, and life can be unpleasant for the girls at
the bottom. Higher-ranking females have harassed subordinates so much
that the victims have stopped ovulating or suffered miscarriages (Wasser
and Starling 2005).
This doesn’t mean that bullying is inevitable, programmed into our genes, or that humans have to act like baboons.
In fact, even baboons don’t have to act like baboons.
Consider Robert Sapolsky’s Forest Troop, a group of wild savanna
baboons he has studied for decades (Sapolsky and Share 2004). In the
early 1980s, this group was characterized by the typical high-stress,
aggressive culture of savanna baboons.
But then an ecological disaster killed off most group members,
including the most aggressive males. Only a few males remained, and
these were more cooperative and mellow.
Among the survivors, social life changed. High-ranking males
rarely harassed their inferiors. Friendly, affiliative behavior
increased. The females became more relaxed. Sapolsky’s team even
observed adult males grooming each other—-something they’d rarely seen
And here’s the really interesting part:
Once the new ways were established, they stuck.
As new males joined the group, these males learned to fit
in. The membership of Forest Troop has changed over the last 20 years,
but the new, laid-back “culture” remains.
Lessons for humanity?
Granted, humans aren’t baboons, and human bullying behavior is
probably more complicated than the sort of harassment that
higher-ranking baboons dish out.
But still I think Saplosky’s story is relevant.
The tale of Forest Troop suggests that a culture of rampant bullying—-even among animals famed for their aggressiveness-- isn’t inevitable.
Moreover, we might have something else to learn from baboons: That bullying is a signal of dominance or social status.
Psychology, status, and bullying in school
When I was growing up, I heard that bullies were people who lacked
self-esteem. According to this view, kids bully because it makes them
feel better about themselves.
I also heard that bullies were social incompetents—people with
poor social skills who resorted to bullying because they couldn’t figure
out any better way to influence the behavior of other people.
But recent research has poked major holes in these theories.
It turns out that some bullies—-the so-called “pure bullies”—-tend to be confident and socially well-adjusted.
They’re not particularly well-liked. Classmates would rather not spend time with bullies.
But these kids are respected. Their peers think they are the “coolest” (Juvoven et al 2000; Sijtsema et al 2008).
Do kids interpret bullying in school as a signal of dominance?
It’s hard to say, because there is very little research addressing this question directly.
Certainly, researchers have noted that bullying seems to flourish in hierarchical settings (like military academies).
And a new study of American middle school students reports that kids tend to become more socially aggressive as they climb up the social ladder.
In addition, bullies seem to “play to an audience,” preferring to
stage their confrontations in places where other kids will see them
(Hawkins et al 2001).
And a recent Finnish study found that bullies cared more about
being respected and admired than their victims did (Sitsjema et al
So perhaps bullies are motivated by the desire to appear more important and influential.
But whatever the motives of bullies, their high status has important implications for the prevention of bullying in school.
As noted by UCLA psychologist Jaana Juvoven, bullying behavior is
encouraged when bullies are perceived to be “cool” (Juvoven et al
To change the behavior of bullies, we need to change the attitudes of everyone in school—bullies, victims, and bystanders alike.
References: Bullying in school, online, and on the savanna
Perhaps the most influential book about bullying in school is Dan Olweus' Bullying at School: What we know and what we can do
(Wiley-Blackwell 1993). Olweus, who is a leading authority on bullying,
pioneered a "whole school approach" to eradicate bullying in Norway.
His program has been adopted in other countries as well. If you are
working to stop bullying in school, this concise book is a good place to
start. The Olweus approach might require some "tweaking" to be
effective in your local culture, however. For an overview of this and
other whole-school approaches to bullying in school, click here.
In addition, here are the references cited in this article:
Copeland WE, Wolke D, Angold A, and Costello EJ. 2013. Adult
psychiatric outcomes of bullying and being bullied by peers in childhood
and adolescence. JAMA Psychiatry 70(4):419-26.
Hawkins DL, Pepler DJ, and Craig WM. 2001. Naturalistic
observations of peer interventions in bullying. Social Development
Jenkins CJ, Finkelhor D, Turner H, and Shattuck A. 2013.
Association of sibling aggression with child and adolescent mental
health. Pediatrics. Published online June 17 2013 ahead of print.
peds.2012-3801 doi: 10.1542
Juvonen J, Graham S, Schuster MA. 2003. Bullying among young
adolescents: the strong, the weak, and the troubled. Pediatrics. 112(6
Nansel TR, Craig W, Overpeck MD, Saluja G, Ruan WJ and Health
Behaviour in School-aged Children Bullying Analyses Working Group. 2004.
Cross-national consistency in the relationship between bullying
behaviors and psychosocial adjustment. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med 158:
Sapolsky RM and Share L. 2004. A pacific culture among wild baboons: Its emergence and transmission. PLoS Biol 2(4): 534-541.
Sentenac M, Gavin A, Gabhainn SN, Molcho M, Due P,
Ravens-Sieberer U, Matos MG, et al. 2013. Peer victimization and
subjective health among students reporting disability or chronic illness
in 11 Western countries. Eur J Public Health 23(3):421-6.
Sijtsema JJ, Veenstra R, Lindenberg S, and Salmivalli C. 2008.
Empirical test of bullies' status goals: assessing direct goals,
aggression, and prestige. Aggress Behav. 2008 Oct 16. [Epub ahead of
Wang H, Zhou X, Lu C, Wu J, Deng X, Hong L, Gao X, and He Y.
2012. Adolescent bullying involvement and psychosocial aspects of family
and school life: a cross-sectional study from Guangdong Province in
China. PLoS One. 2012;7(7):e38619.
Wasser SK and Starling AK. 2005. Proximate and ultimate causes of
reproductive suppression among female yellow baboons at Mikumi National
Park, Tanzania. American Journal of Primatology 16(2): 97-121.
Content of "Bullying in school, at home, and on the savanna" last modifed 6/13