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 2013).

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.

And bullying 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 about

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 bullying.

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 technologies.

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 miserable.

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 hierarchy.

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 animals.

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 before.

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 study of American middle school students reports that kids tend to become more socially aggressive as they climb up the social ladder (Felmlee and Farris 2011).

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 2008).

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 2003).

To change the behavior of bullies, we need to change the attitudes of everyone in school—bullies, victims, and bystanders alike.

Copyright © 2006-2021 by Gwen Dewar, Ph.D.; all rights reserved.
For educational purposes only. If you suspect you have a medical problem, please see a physician.

References: Bullying in school, online, and on the savanna

Dan Olweus

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.

Faris R and Felmlee D. 2011. Status struggles: Network centrality and gender segregation in same- and cross-gender aggression. American Sociological Review 76(1): 48–73

Hawkins DL, Pepler DJ, and Craig WM. 2001. Naturalistic observations of peer interventions in bullying. Social Development 10(4): 512-527.

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 Pt 1):1231-7.

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: 730-736.

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 print].

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