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The Origins of Bullying

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Late on a Saturday night in September, a 14-year old boy named Jamey Rodemeyer, who had been the target of bullying from fellow students at Williamsville North High School in Buffalo New York, took his life. Just hours before he killed himself, Jamey left the last of his numerous messages online talking about the pain he had been dealing with for a long time. Jamey’s suicide was a terrible, extreme reaction to being bullied, and tragically, his was not an unusual case. According to some reports there were as many as 10 teen suicides in the month of September this year, in the United States, that were linked to bullying. Violent reactions by teens to being bullied are not new. It was boys that were bullied and ostracized that committed the high school shootings that plagued the US in the 1990’s. From those mass slaughters to the present day rash of suicides, bullying is taking a violent toll on the youth of America.

The response to this crisis in the United States has been efforts at the local, regional and Federal ( levels to combat bullying and its impacts. Working groups, task forces and new policies have all been established, with the hopes of halting the spread of the social scourge that is bullying. While it is clear that bullying has become a critical issue both within US schools and the social systems navigated by America’s youth, what is less clear is where its origins lie. It’s easy to get consumed with the impacts and immediate causes of bullying in the US, and to ignore where bullying stems from. However, understanding the origins of bullying is critical. Without the deep understanding the origins of a behavior provide, efforts to prevent bullying will continue to fail.

To understand where bullying comes from, we have to look at the phenomenon on multiple levels. The first step is to define bullying. Bullying is a behavior that is often difficult to measure, but is something that we all think we know when we see it. Many of us have experienced bullying first-hand, and most of us have witnessed it at some point. However, to study any trait or characteristic, we must first define what it is, and bullying is no exception. According to psychological sources, bullying is a specific type of aggression in which (1) the behavior is intended to harm or disturb, (2) the behavior occurs repeatedly over time, and (3) there is an imbalance of power, with a more powerful person or group attacking a less powerful one. This asymmetry of power may be physical or psychological, and the aggressive behavior may be verbal (eg, name-calling, threats), physical (eg, hitting), or psychological (eg, rumors, shunning/exclusion). The key elements of this definition are that multiple means can be employed by the bully or bullies, intimidation is the goal, and bullying can happen on a one-on-one or group basis (Nansel et al, 2001).

Now that we’ve established a definition for bullying, there are two distinct levels of analysis that will shed light on the behavior and its origins. The first level of analysis is to determine if bullying is a cultural phenomenon. In other words, is bullying unique to US society, or is it widespread across different cultures, from different parts of the world? If bullying is widespread and found throughout different societies, we have to consider that it has a deeper origin than present cultural conditions. In short, we can deepen our analysis of the behavior. Bullying is, in fact, widespread and not restricted to American society, but instead is found across the globe (Smith et al, 2002). From hunter/gatherer groups (Boehm, 2000) to post-industrial Japan, bullying is ubiquitous across human cultures.

A 2005 multinational study that spanned 28 countries across North America and Europe revealed how commonplace bullying is and how consistent its effects are (Due et al, 2005). Due et al (2005) used 12 physical and psychological symptoms associated with being bullied to measure the effects of this behavior on the youth in the study. They found that the amount of bullying experienced by kids in those 28 countries varied greatly, with the least severe happening among girls in Sweden and the most severe among boys in Lithuania. However, despite the variation in the amount of bullying, there were no countries where bullying was completely absent. Further, Due et al reported that,

“There was a consistent, strong and graded association between bullying and each of 12 physical and psychological symptoms among adolescents in all 28 countries.” (Due et al, 2005).

No matter where you go in the world, from the Mbuti of Central Africa (Turnbull, 1961) to Suburban children in the United States (Wang et al, 2009) there are individuals and groups that target others with tactics designed to intimidate, coerce or harm them. In some cases bullying is used to maintain social order and ensure that no one acquires too much dominance, status or personal power. In other cases, bullying is harmful and used to injure others physically, emotionally or socially. These scenarios are two sides of the same coin, and one can easily metamorphose into the other if the power dynamics become skewed in one direction or the other. Despite the variation in the amount and intention of bullying across human cultures one thing is clear, bullying is everywhere. The universality of bullying across human societies indicates that this is a species-typical human behavior that has little to do with the cultures people live in. Bullying, it seems is part of our normal behavioral repertoire, it is part of the human condition.

Human universals are important to our understanding of the evolution of behavior in our species (Cosmides & Tooby, 1990). Despite our extensive knowledge of the human fossil record, we can’t directly observe the behaviors of our ancestors. While fossils and ecological reconstructions provide some insights into behavior, modern human and other primates provide important clues as well. When we see modern human behaviors that are universal in nature, it tells us that these behaviors have their origins deep in our evolutionary history. At the very least universal behaviors evolved early on in our species prehistory and they were almost certainly present before humans began migrating around the world and separating into different, sometimes isolated ethnic groups. Bullying is one such behavior. It was there in the hot, seasonal grasslands of southern Africa when the first members of our species took their seminal steps and spoke the original human language, and it has been with us ever since. However, universal behaviors can pre-date a species origin, having been inherited from a previous ancestor. That’s what the next level of analysis can tell us about bullying and its origins.

The second level of analysis is to determine if bullying is unique to our species. To do this, we need to look at whether or not bullying is present in other species. Using the definition provided by above, this is a tall order, because that definition requires knowledge of intentionality. Intentions are difficult to identify in other animals because no matter how many times you ask them why they did something, they don’t answer (at least I’ve never gotten an answer from them). However, if we employ the “key elements” of bullying as Nansel defines them, we don’t need to know the intentions of individuals, we just have to determine if the purpose of a particular behavior was to intimidate. By using intimidation as our litmus for bullying, we can, at the very least, test for bullying-like behaviors in other animals, including other primates. If other primates engage in bullying-like behaviors, we have to consider the distinct possibility that bullying itself is deeply rooted in our evolutionary history and predates our own species.

When bullying is considered across animals, there is ample evidence that many other animals, including other primates, engage in bullying-like behaviors. Rats and mice are commonly used as models for social stress during different life phases, including adolescence. Studies on these common laboratory rodents indicate that social stress, experienced when one individual repeatedly attacks another or takes resources from them, has immediate and lasting impacts (Kinsey et al, 2007; Vidal et al, 2011). Rats who suffered from bullying-like behaviors were less likely to drink water or consume other resources (Vidal et al, 2011). Mice that suffered repeated social defeats were more anxious and experienced changes in brain chemistry (Kinsey et al, 2007). Bullying-like behaviors extend beyond rodents, and labs, appearing in many species, including other primates.

Bullying-like behaviors are found in every major group of primates, and can sometimes be severe. Among baboons, one of the best-known, non-human primates in the world, bullying-like behaviors are common. Baboons are common throughout sub-Saharan Africa and many species live in female-centered societies that are held together by matrilineal bonds that span multiple generations. Groups of related females work together to compete over resources and in doing so regularly gang up on females from other matrilines (Altmann, 1980). Female baboons have large canines (though nowhere near as large as their male counterparts) and their fights can be intense and, occasionally, dangerous. Females who regularly lose fights and are low ranking are more stressed and have lower reproductive success than their higher-ranking group-mates (Sapolsky, 1987). While female baboons are not always bully-like toward one another, they frequently use intimidation and aggression to modify the behaviors of others and to get resources from them (Seyfarth, 1976).

Bullying-like behaviors are not restricted to female primates. Chimpanzees live in communities with many males and females and males live in the groups their born into their entire lives. Males also form dominance relationships with each other based on physical power and friendships, which they use in competition over mates. Male chimpanzees regularly intimidate each other with bluffs, displays, charges and aggression, which can range from making another male move from a resting spot to physical violence. One of the areas I focus on in my research is the development of behavior in male chimpanzees, paying particular attention to adolescence. Adolescence is a time of great change and uncertainty for male chimpanzees, when they leave their mothers and enter into the adult male social world. When they do that they enter a world of constant posturing and networking that threatens to erupt into violence at any moment. Much like their human cousins, adolescent male chimpanzees begin at the bottom of the male dominance hierarchy (Goodall, 1986) and have to demonstrate their value as a friend and ally, while growing and putting on muscle mass in order to move up the hierarchy. Because adolescent males are smaller, weaker, less experienced and have to challenge other males in order to become competitive, they make attractive targets for older males, and older adolescents and adults regularly attack them (Sherrow, 2008). In short, adolescent males are almost continually bullied as they attempt to join the male social world.

In most cases the bullying-like behaviors experienced by male chimpanzees are temporary and relatively harmless. The most common form of intimidation involves a dominant male puffing himself up, with all of his hair standing on end, and walking toward or by another male. This is usually enough to compel the subordinate, or lower ranking, male to pant grunt (a short “uhh, uhh, uhh” vocalization which is repeated several times and serves to recognize the dominance of another chimpanzee), don a fear grimace and put their hand out in a palm up begging gesture. However, if two males are close in rank or a male fails to adhere to social norms within the community, bullying-like behaviors can become more intense and, on occasion, dangerous.

One of the reasons bullying-like behaviors can become so dangerous among male chimpanzees is that they regularly gang up on each other during aggressive interactions in what are called coalitions. On three different occasions, researchers at three different field sites, observed coalitions of adult male chimpanzees attack and kill a male from their group, apparently because they did not adhere to the social norms of the community (Fawcett & Muhumza, 2000; Nishida, 1996; Watts, 2004). One case involved the gang attack and killing of an older male, Ntologi, who had been a particularly despotic alpha male of the Mahale M community for years (Nishida, 1996). In two of the cases young adult males who had not formed good friendships within the community, and were highly aggressive toward older males were beaten, bitten, kicked and drug, until their wounds were so severe that they didn’t survive (Fawcett & Muhumza, 2000; Watts, 2004).

On October 29, 2002 David Watts was observing males from the Ngogo chimpanzee community in Kibale National Park in western Uganda, when he observed a gang of adult males attack and kill a young adult male named Grapelli, from their own community. I had spent a lot of time with Grapelli over the previous two years, and had gotten to know him fairly well during that time. He was a striking example of a young male chimpanzee, with distinctive diagonal black markings on a rare, light tan face. He was also one of the biggest, most aggressive chimpanzees at Ngogo and didn’t spend much time with the older, higher ranking males of the community. Instead, Grapelli would go off by himself, for weeks on end, and when he returned he would fight with the other males. Between when Professor Watts left the party of chimpanzees on the night of the 28th and when he caught back up with them on the morning of the 29th, something had snapped in the other males. When he arrived on the scene, the attack was already underway, and a large group of adult males was repeatedly attacking Grapelli, pulling, punching, kicking, dragging and biting him, until he was bloodied and struggling for breath. Grapelli was beaten so badly during the attack that he could barely manage to pull himself into a rudely constructed nest in a low treetop before collapsing. The next day he was missing and it took another eight months before his decomposed body was discovered by two of the Ngogo field assistants.

In all three instances the males that were killed appeared to have broken social rules or norms, and bullying-like behaviors that erupted into violence were used to attempt to get them to conform. Among chimpanzee, and many other primate societies, proper socialization and conformity are critical for maintaining social order and consistency, just as they are in humans. Individuals whose behavior challenges, disrupts or are considered unusual are often the targets of aggression, and that aggression continues until those individuals change their behavior. Bullying-like behaviors are not only present in many primate species, they are often utilized to accomplish the same goals. Bullying-like behaviors are used to enhance an individual or coalition’s competitive ability, or to coerce others into changing their behavior to conform to the rest of the community. Bullying-like behaviors provide the individuals who engage in them with advantages over their targets, through enhanced status or access to resources, or both. If this sounds familiar, it’s because humans use bullying behaviors to achieve the same ends.

The major differences between the bullying-like behaviors so common in other primates and animals and the bullying that is plaguing the young children of the US and other countries are some of the very traits that are hallmarks of humanity. Humans have taken an ancient behavior that used to provide an advantage in survival and reproduction and altered its intensity and impact through language and culture. While physical bullying is a serious issue and targets of bullying are beaten all too often, humans have intensified and expanded the impact of bullying by incorporating language. Language allows us to communicate abstract ideas, coordinate behaviors and express thoughts and feelings to others. Language also allows us to gossip, and gossiping is a key psychological element in bullying and can have serious, lasting effects (Sharp, 1995).

Language, combined with a phenomenal social memory that allows us to remember scores of individuals and their attributes, which we inherited from our primate ancestors, allows bullies to spread rumors about their targets, and inflict harm on them, without putting themselves at risk, physically. Text and online bullying are extensions of this behavior and further remove the bullies themselves from immediate risk. It is not anonymity that texting and online interactions provide, but rather the opportunity for individuals to distance themselves from potential conflict and risk that provides them with a platform to be cruel.

Humans have further altered the impact of bullying-like behaviors through cultural practices and norms that celebrate violence and demand conformity to a narrow view of what is acceptable and normal. In the multi-national study mentioned earlier, the most intensive bullying was found in countries where violence and social intolerance are the most commonplace (Due et al, 2005). In the US, views on violence, sexuality and what is normal impact the actions of our youth, and play on our inherent tendencies to coerce others into conformity. We know that humans are incredibly susceptible to suggestion from authority figures and are willing to commit what would otherwise be considered heinous crimes when directed or encouraged to by authority figures (Milgram, 1974). Still, cultures do not “create” bullies and bullies are not found only in those cultures that practice social intolerance and glorify violence. The tendency to bully, or coerce, others is natural and deeply rooted in our evolutionary history, and emerges in any group of toddlers playing freely. However, when cultures condone and in some cases celebrate violence and aggression, while suppressing or demonizing aspects of humanity that are equally natural such as homosexuality, they unwittingly give license to and encourage bullies.

Bullying was there during the birth of our species having been inherited from the earliest of our social ancestors. Species ranging from rats to chimpanzees regularly engage in bullying-like behaviors, and those behaviors provide advantages to the individuals who engage in them. However, the combinatory effects of language and culture on bullying in humans have distorted its effects, pushing it beyond individually advantageous to socially venomous. The result has been the crisis we see played out in our schools, shopping malls and social media websites, children and young adults bullying each other with devastating results. While nearly all anti-bullying programs are well-meaning and can show progress in the short term, they fail to get at the root of the problem. Addressing bullying through culturally based social programs is like taking the flowerhead off a milk thistle. You will slow the growth and spread of the plant, but not for long. It is only through incorporating a deeper understanding of the antiquity of a behavior like bullying in our policies that we can hope to alter its impact on society. Like milk thistle, bullying must be pulled up by the root if we hope to remove it from the fields where our children grow and develop.


Altmann, J. 1980. Baboon Mothers and Infants. University of Chicago Press.

Boehm, C. 1999. Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Cosmides, L & Tooby, J. 1990 Evolutionary Psychology: A Primer.

Due, P, Holstein, B, Lynch, J, Diderichsen, F, Gabhain, S, Scheidt, P, Currie, C, and The Health Behaviour in School-Aged Children Bullying Working Group* .2005. Bullying and symptoms among school-aged children: international comparative cross sectional study in 28 countries. European Journal of Public Health, Vol. 15, No. 2, 128–132.

Fawcett, K. & Muhumza, G. 2000. Death of a Wild Chimpanzee Community Member: Possible Outcome of Intense Sexual Competition. American Journal of Primatology 51:243–247.

Goodall, J. 1986. The Chimpanzees of Gombe: Patterns of Behavior. Harvard University Press.

Kinsey, S, Bailey, M, Sheridan, J, Padgett, D, Avitsur, R. 2007. Repeated Social Defeat Causes Increased Anxiety-Like Behavior and Alters Splenocyte Function in C57BL/6 and CD-1 Mice. Brain Behav Immun. May; 21(4): 458–466.

Milgram, S. 1974. Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. Harper.

Nansel, T, Overpeck, M, Pilla, R, Ruan, WJ, Simons-Morton, B, Scheidt, P. 2001. Bullying Behaviors Among US Youth: Prevalence and Association With Psychosocial Adjustment. JAMA. 2001;285(16):2094-2100.

Nishida, T. 1996. The Death of Ntologi, The Unparalleled Leader of M Group. Pan African News. Vol.3, No.1

Sapolsky, R. M. 1987. Stress, social status, and reproductive physiology in free-living baboons. Psychobiology of reproductive behavior: An evolutionary perspective. In: Psychobiology of reproductive behavior: An evolutionary perspective. Crews, David (Ed), pp. 291-322. Englewood Cliffs, NJ, US: Prentice-Hall, Inc, xii, 350 pp.

Seyfarth, R. 1976. Social relationships among adult female baboons. Animal Behaviour 24, 917-938.

Sharp, S. 1995. How much does bullying hurt? The effects of bullying on the personal wellbeing and educational progress of secondary aged students. Educational and Child Psychology, Vol 12(2), 81-88.

Sherrow, H. M. 2008. Variation in and ontogeny of social behavior in young male chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii) at Ngogo, Kibale National Park, Uganda. Ph.D. Thesis. Yale University.

Smith, P, Cowie, H, Olafsson, R, & Liefooghe, A. 2002. Definitions of bullying: A comparison of terms used, and age and sex differences, in a 14-country international comparison. Child Development, 73, 1119–1133.

Turnbull, C. 1961. The Forest People. Simon & Schuster.

Vidal, J, Buwalda, B, Koolhaas, J. 2011. Differential long-term effects of social stress during adolescence on anxiety in Wistar and wild-type rats. Behavioural Processes, Volume 87, Issue 2, June 2011, Pages 176-182.

Wang, J, Iannotti, R, Nansel, T. 2009. School Bullying Among Adolescents in the United States: Physical, Verbal, Relational, and Cyber. Journal of Adolescent Health, Volume 45, Issue 4, 368-375.

Watts, D. 2004. Intracommunity coalitionary killing of an adult male chimpanzee at Ngogo, Kibale National Park, Uganda. Int J Primatol 25: 507–521.

Hogan Sherrow About the Author: Hogan Sherrow is Assistant Professor of Anthropology in the Department of Sociology & Anthropology at Ohio University and the Director of the Hominid Behavior Research Project. He has conducted research on chimpanzees in Uganda, gibbons in Indonesia and baboons in Namibia. His current research focuses on modeling the behavior of early human ancestors using data from chimpanzees, humans and fossil Hominins. Hogan’s blog You Evolving focuses on using evolutionary principles and data to understand modern human behavior. When he’s not following chimpanzees through the forest, collecting data on gang members in the US, or lecturing to packed classes of college students, Hogan can be found on his small horse farm in Albany, Ohio with his wife and two daughters.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. rationalrevolution 10:29 am 12/15/2011

    Excellent piece, I like the way it was written as well as the material. This reminds me very much of a blog post a wrote over a year ago about the evolutionary role of morality. I hope that the author of this piece will read it:

    This article very much supports my statements there, which are that morality is basically an evolved mechanism through which groups self-select behavioral traits through violence against individuals who don’t conform. My conclusion is essentially that “morality is immoral”.

    As a “liberal”, a biologist, and hopefully one day anthropologist, there are many issues such as this where I find “liberal” approaches to issues well intentioned but quite lacking because they are not rooted in science, rather they are rooted in folk ideas and religious concepts. Another example was/is the belief that “low self-esteem” drives teenagers to sex, which of course makes no sense, and has proven to be totally false. For obvious reasons people with high self-esteem are more sexually active. It’s true that people with low self-esteem may allow themselves to be exploited and bullied into sex more than those with high self-esteem, but people with high self-esteem are more likely to seek out sex and to put themselves into sexual situations because people with high self-esteem are typically more social and more outgoing, etc., and deemed “higher quality mates”, and also have their own sense of “mating priority”. So as a result, programs focused simply on “boosting self-esteem” just for the sake of it typically have either no impact on the rates of teen sex or can actually drive the rate higher.

    Which isn’t to say that there is anything necessarily wrong with boosting self-esteem or even teen sex, as long as its consensual and condoms are used, etc., but this gets to the point of how worldviews impact approaches to addressing social issues, and how even many “liberals” still form policy based on assumptions rooted in religious concepts or folk ideas instead of being rooted in an understanding of evolutionary psychology.

    Ultimately, the notion that “low self-esteem” drives teen sex comes from the idea that “good traits” result in “good behavior”, and having sex is a “bad behavior” (or at least something to be discouraged), therefore it must be a product of a “negative trait”. “Low self-esteem bad”, “high self-esteem good”, “teen sex bad”; “low self-esteem = teen sex = bad”. This is sort of the mentality, which of course has no basis in understanding human behavior from an evolutionary perspective. Any evolutionary biologist would, hopefully, immediately question the assumption that improving children’s self-esteem would result in lower rates of teen sex.

    Another problem I have with many of my fellow “liberals” is the notion that understanding behavior from an evolutionary perspective is somehow a way of legitimizing that behavior, for example the issue of rape. I remember a while back when an evolutionary psychologist or anthropologist suggested that rape may have been a behavior that was selected for by evolution, which outraged many feminists, but the issue is that if this is true (I don’t know if it is or not, but it makes sense) then its a fact of life. We can’t choose the facts of reality. Their view was that this was “legitimizing rape”, which is not the case, it is understanding its origins, which is how we can better deal with it, treat it and prevent it.

    There is a major fallacy that many non-biologists believe, which is that if a trait is selected for by evolution that makes it “good”. Us biologists know this isn’t true, but many people conflate “selection” with “positive”, and this is also a blending of religious ideas with evolutionary ones, with the concept that “God” created good people, so if evolution created people or was “the process that god used to create people”, then this process of “creation” must also be “good” as well. But it isn’t, its indifferent, and traits that may contribute to individual or even group survival may not be “fair” or “nice” or socially desirable or individually desirable even beneficial to anyone in our modern environment.

    Anyway, sorry for the rambling, but great article, glad to see this.

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  2. 2. Kairos 3:41 am 12/16/2011

    The article is very comprehensive, but I failed to find a solution in it.

    It concludes with “we need to keep in mind that bullying is basically just a human condition made worse by our high intelligence” and that we need to keep it in mind when legislating etc, but… how? How do we keep it in mind? What do we do to fix the human condition? Am I missing something from the article? Or is it simply arguing the point, not offering a solution?

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  3. 3. Jerzy New 8:12 am 12/16/2011

    Good, friendly supervision by adults is the answer.

    Mbuti adults are not scared of school gangs, not overworked and never heard of modern education theories which forbids teachers to punish a child. If they see bullying, they just slap the bully.

    Anyway, young baboons and chimpanzees know, too – the first thing when bullied is to appeal to somebody stronger to pay even.

    BTW – interesting is that bullying among adolescents may be another rudimental ape behaviour expressed transiently during human development, like grasping objects by newborns and tent-building by children.

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  4. 4. hogansherrow 2:26 pm 12/16/2011

    rationalrevolution: Interesting comments, I will check out your blogs. Remember, nothings is proven in science just supported, or not supported.

    Kairos: The purpose of this blog was to establish the evolutionary component of bullying. I have a lot of real world solutions that will be forthcoming in a follow up blog and book.

    Jerzy New: Having working in Africa for over a decade, I hear you.

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  5. 5. caldararo 4:27 pm 12/16/2011

    I think it is unfortunate to see an article like this for a number of reasons. The author claims to have discovered that bullying is a human universal by simply making reference to a couple of studies and does not even go to the trouble of accessing the Human Area Resource Files. The argument is much like those of the “killer apes” variety made famous by poplar writer Robert Ardrey in his book, African Genesis (1961). Ideas about human universals are common and ususually poorly documented as is this one. See my article: It can be downloaded free from the SSRN website given above.

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  6. 6. hogansherrow 12:07 am 12/18/2011

    caldararo: I’m the author and I never claimed to discover anything. I asked a few questions and used some good data, collected by reputable researchers to address the questions. Also, this is a blog, not an article. As such, it doesn’t require the kind of in-depth research that a professional article does. Finally, your argument against human universals, helps to confirm part of the reason I wrote this piece. Ignoring compelling data will lead to policies that are limited in their effectiveness. By the way, look for the HARF data in the book.

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  7. 7. j2bryson 4:26 am 12/20/2011

    I think your work is very interesting, and I like the wide biological angle you have taken. But I find it odd that you will look at other species but say so little about adult bullying, which is presumably where bullying has the most impact on social organisation.

    Also, I’m not clear on whether you’re trying to lump bullying behaviour in with ordinary dominance interactions. It’s normal for someone whose position is threatened to try to reassert dominance, is that bullying? In the adult literature, bullying is usually described as being done by overly-insecure individuals unreasonably afraid of losing positions of authority. One of the dominant strategies for adults is simply division, creating new in groups and out groups based on knowledge, tasks, rumours etc. I believe this is also done in children.

    Also, from an evolutionary perspective, can you describe 14 year olds as children? They are fully capable of sexual reproduction and were working adults only 100 years ago. How does it affect their social dynamics to be kept in socially subordinate child-like roles?

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  8. 8. hogansherrow 12:34 am 12/21/2011

    j2bryson: Interesting perspective. Some of the human data I used was based on adults, and the non-human data is primarily focused on adults. However, I wanted to focus most of the blog on young people, as that is where there is a perceived crisis going on in the US right now. As for your question about whether or not 14 year olds can be called children from an evolutionary perspective, the answer is yes. I am a little biased when it comes to this, as I have an [almost] 14 year old daughter and she will always be a kid to me. However, objective data backs me up here. First, most 14 year old females are not “fully capable of sexual reproduction”. Even if they begin menstruating by 14 [not all do], many of them experience a period of post-menarche sterility. This means that they do not ovulate, often for years, after beginning their menstrual cycles. This is especially marked in non-western populations. Second, even though males are usually capable of reproducing, they are by no means adults. They still have a lot of growth and development to undergo before they are physically adults. Third, 14 year olds are not now, nor have they ever been typically considered adults in a social sense. Yes, in some cultures, including our own 100 years ago, 14 year olds were often working, and some were married, and some were reproducing, that is atypical. More commonly, even working 14 year olds were not considered adults. Finally, studies have shown that adolescent brains are different than adult brains, in chemistry, neural activity and neural structure.

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  9. 9. j2bryson 3:50 am 12/21/2011

    I’m fairly certain that developmental biology no longer recognises a particular dividing line between adolescence and adulthood. Yes, the biological changes you say take place (though note that 14 is late, not early, for females to start having their period; 8 is early), but development continues taking place well into our 60s. In some cultures you are not an adult until your father dies. But in the animal literature, if you are “working” (away from your mother) & reproducing (are you sure that reproduction by 15 was the minority?) you get classified as an adult, or possibly a young adult, so if you are making comparisons you need to take that into account.

    And I agree that people are most concerned about adolescent bullying, but if you are trying to understand it in evolutionary context (which I think is a great idea) you do need to look at where the greatest impact normally lies.

    You say “In some cases bullying is used to maintain social order and ensure that no one acquires too much dominance, status or personal power. In other cases, bullying is harmful…” I doubt the world splits so neatly into the two categories. But regardless, the point is that the behaviour may be common or even adaptive in ordinary adult village settings, but break down or perhaps just get somehow reinforced to damaging levels in institutional settings such as schools and prisons.

    I know one of the reasons there is brutal bullying in zoos is that the excluded individuals in the wild would “just leave”. This could of course mean an individual risks getting predated before they find another social group, but sometimes entire troops split off together. But in captivity, victims of bullying have nowhere to go.

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  10. 10. Jerzy New 5:30 am 12/21/2011

    Bullying IS part of normal dominance behaviour in primates.

    When you ask about “pathological” or “undesired” bullying, then you introduce a moral edge.

    I would repeat, that bullying is kept in control by third party. Especially adults several levels away in social status. Those who are neither bullies nor bullied are interested in maintaining group cohesiveness. For them benefits from smoothly functioning group matter more than whether bully or bullied is dominant over another.

    I would say that pathological bullying is result of pathological breakdown of normal human society, where adolescents should be in a strong web of social transactions with adults and children. In this case East Harlem slum with youth gangs is pathological society, and so is rich Scandinavian neighborhood where parents work too long, youths sit on the internet, and social service believes that children should not be forced to anything by adults.

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  11. 11. george4th 5:37 am 12/23/2011

    “Bullying” is not limited to those under 18….it is very prevalent in the “adult” world also. It is very MYOPIC to limit the issue to children only?

    Usually called gang stalking or cause stalking it is not the typical stalking that most would think of…as in single males stalking females.

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  12. 12. grousehunter 8:04 am 12/23/2011

    Does aggressivily dealing with a bully make me a bully? A good question that is not activily addressed. If indeed bullying is an inate behaviour then trying to change the bully may not be possible leading to the need for physical separation as the only solution. In classrooms of the past this often was not a problem with a system that often filtered out bullies by grade 7 or 8. The current system which treats school more as a social gathering place as opposed to a place of learning no longer has these checks and balances built in. Bullies in any organization are identifiable but the willingness to deal with them on an individual basis currently does not exist.

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  13. 13. Shoe9 10:01 am 12/23/2011

    Clearly, bullying takes place at all ages. But often, the “adult” bully shows themselves to act like an adolescent, even when they are in an executive position.

    The question of zoos reminds me of schools. Kids who get bullied in school are legally required to stay there. That is a problem, all by itself.

    And Dr. Sherrow, I was also frustrated by the lack of concrete suggestions, but happy to see that you are planning to offer those in the future. Can you say when you might do that? I have two high school boys who are getting bullied, and need help!!

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  14. 14. hogansherrow 11:48 am 12/26/2011

    Hello all, thanks for your comments: The more we talk about this, and deal with some of the facts related to bullying the more likely we are to make progress on this issue.

    As for adult bullying, it is a big problem, but I chose not to address it for three reasons:
    1) Bullying among our youth has been identified as a crisis and the suicides, beatings, etc…warrant individualized attention.
    2) Adult patterns often, though not always, have their roots in childhood. Kids who are bullies grow up to be adults who are bullies. Again, I want to get at the root of the problem.
    3) This is a blog, and as such is limited in size and scope. I plan to address adult bullying in the upcoming book.

    Shoe9: If you want to message me on Facebook at Dr. Hogan Sherrow we can discuss your boys further.

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  15. 15. WizeHowl 7:48 am 12/27/2011

    I was bullied as a child right through school, but I refused to fight back. The only time I would lash out was if the bullies piked on any of my crippled mates. The bullying was endemic in our schools here in Australia the teachers did nothing to stop it, even to the point that one day I finally agreed to fight the biggest of them, which was to be the miss-match of the century as I stood just 3’ 6” at 13yrs in 7th grade and the kid I was to fight was stood over 5’.

    On the day of the fight the whole school turned out including the headmaster and most of the teachers, but there was something that none of them knew about me, I was a champion gymnast and my stepfather who also liked to bully me was also a champion wrestler and boxer and had been teaching me to defend myself. The fight only lasted a few minutes until the other kid ran off home yelling for his mummy. That was the last time I was picked on primary school.

    In secondary school I met up with a kid who had heard about the fight and took it upon himself to make my life miserable, but I had the same rule I would not fight. When I decided it was time I had had enough of school and home life and to run away I figured it was time to square up a few scores, so next time he picked on me I dropped him, but as usual it was me that got in trouble for fighting by the headmaster, not the bully. Like I said it was accepted policy here forty years ago, and if you fought back and won then you were in the wrong.

    Some years later I met up with this man on a train and he apologised to me for all the things he did to me, and he actually thanked me for beating the hell out of him that day, it made him realise that he wasn’t the strongest kid in the school, just because he was the biggest, turned out the smallest kid in the school could beat him.

    Apparently he turned out alright after that and became a counsellor for kids in his shoes. So some good can come of bullying some times.

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  16. 16. Rhue_O3 8:42 pm 01/7/2012

    After thinking about the roots of bullying, I wonder who is responsible for helping little kids not grow up to bully. The first answer that comes to mind is that parents need to be responsible for teaching their children not to bully. Even if children are born with a predisposition to bully (as apparently all primates are), parents can teach their children other ways of feeling in control and powerful, rather than simply allowing nature to take its course. Because human parents have developed the ability to think about consequences (as they have cognitively and physically matured), use language, and shape the behaviors of their children, the primary responsibility falls on them. I liked this idea of placing responsibility on the parents until I considered all of the problems involved. Some parents would do a good job, but others probably would not, and so bullying might be reduced a little, but it wouldn’t stop. Then, I thought about the responsibility of society or even one’s culture to change ideas of bullying, sort of like the powerful chimps that try to control social norms in their groups. However, the powerful chimps then become rather like bullies themselves. The more I considered the problem, the more it seemed to grow into a universal issue of tolerance and kindness that would have to replace the innate bullying behavior. There is no evidence that the world is ready to accept tolerance or kindness in place of power and bullying, and as technology develops and bullies can be powerful from a distance, it is less likely. So, in the end, it seems to me that parents and the small communities in which most people interact with each other must work to teach their children that bullying is damaging and wrong. Then, I am left to wonder if this approach would be undertaken by enough parents and communities to make a dent in bullying that seems to be part of primate nature.

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  17. 17. lj237209 7:06 pm 01/9/2012

    After reading this blog I immediately felt conflicted. The fact that we are “born” to be bullies is frightening and uncomfortable. I supposed I already knew that human nature allows men to be selfish according to John Locke but now we are bullies also? As uncomfortable as I was with this idea, I also was disheartened by the fact that this give an excuse to these behaviors. However, as Dr. Sherrow stated in the blog, though we are wired to portray bullying like qualities, it is the environment in which we develop that alters the activeness of this pre-programed mind set.

    As I discussed this article with my peers I was astonished by the responses that I received. A couple of my peers weren’t surprised, claiming that if we weren’t bullies we wouldn’t survive? I think that’s a long shot, maybe bullying among other primates is some cases is used as purely a survival technique, but the bullying that has developed among humans is by no means used for survival, in most cases. Other peers felt the same as I did, uneasy about the facts. Most everyone I discussed the article with spoke about how big of a deal language has been with bullying. It has taken “the bully” to a whole new level.

    I wish that I could believe was that all it took were some anti-bullying programs but I’m pessimistic about that idea. Bullying has grown to a level of no return, it has only become increasingly out of control. With the aid of technology, bullying can happen anywhere.

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  18. 18. rt126208 8:50 pm 01/9/2012

    I do not find it hard to believe that bullying is part of the human condition. I think in our evolutionary history, bullying was at some point a means of survival due to competition over resources, or competition over females. We can see this in our closest living relatives, as Dr. Sherrow stated. Most children are not raised in a home where bullying is rewarded. I know that when bullied my younger brother I was sure to get in trouble. If this is the case in most households, but we see bullying growing at an alarming rate, then I think we’re born with the pre-existing behavior of bullying.

    Although I wish I didn’t, I too share lj237209’s pessimistic view on the future of bullying. Even if we pour millions of dollars into anti-bullying programs in schools, kids are still going to bully each other. If we’re arguing that bullying is in fact a human condition, then no matter what we do, it is still going to be present. Even if it’s subconscious, everyone is trying to elevate themselves in society, or within their group of friends, be it verbal physical or psychological.

    Until adults accept that everyone is equal no matter their race, gender or sexuality, bullying will continue and probably even worsen among kids. How can we tell kids to stop bullying when adults are bullying each other in the same ways across the globe? In my opinion, with kids having increased exposure to wars and violence, their tolerance of bullying and dominance will increase. It also doesn’t help when adults stand by and witness kids bullying each other and they don’t step in to stop it. I’ve worked at two summer camps and at each place I’ve seen the adults ignore bullying.

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  19. 19. J. Frisbee 8:53 pm 01/9/2012

    Bullying has become so dominant in our society over recent years and it is sad that it drives people all the way to suicide. Bullying is evolving just as we are, with the most recent type of bullying : cyber-bullying. Children begin bullying at such a young age we need to take the initiative to teach them right away that bullying is unacceptable in any way and let them know the effects that it can lead to. It begins with the parents but should also continue all the way throughout their time enrolled in school.

    The behavior of bullying is something that I have been around most of my life. Being a big guy (6′ 4” and 250 lbs.) I am often looked at instantly as being a bully just because of my size. When I meet people for the first time I try to smile as much as possible so they do not get intimidated by me usually towering over them. I think that size gives a lot of people the belief that they can bully someone in order to get things there way.

    Another thing that I think that is burned into the mind of every creature on Earth is the thought of “kill or be killed”. Every individual specie is competing with others within in habitat in order to live to see another day. Although bullying is not always as violent, it is still the individual having to decide if they want to give or receive the bullying. In the perfect world there would be no bullying, but with bullying so embedded in the world today, individuals are having to make the this tough decision.

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  20. 20. js274608 9:50 pm 01/9/2012

    I have witnessed bullying growing up and continue to see it even as a college student. It is a somewhat natural instinct for some people to bully others. I think it comes from insecurity and an intense desire to feel in control. People tend to fear actions and thoughts they do not understand. Those who stand out or fight social norms are a threat to others that enjoy the social structure and order to our daily lives.

    In my high school it was mainly the kids who dressed differently or lived outside of the social construct that were bullied the most. As a marching band member, I had quite a few friends that felt alienated or bullied by others. I never personally had experiences with it but I saw the affects it had on my friends. They felt anxious and stressed outside of their comfortable social circle. It’s wrong and should be stopped but it would be impossible to complete a task like that. As the article states, bullying is everywhere and has a place in almost every society.

    I think the best way to fight bullying is to acquire self-defense and to promote acceptance within the classroom. It’s not the perfect solution but to me knowing how to protect yourself is the best way to have any kind of control over situations like bullying.

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  21. 21. ay196310 10:21 pm 01/9/2012

    I appreciate the fact that someone has broadened the idea that bullying is not simply an ‘American’ problem. In fact, it’s not even purely a human problem. Wherever there are social hierarchies there will always be bullies trying to assert themselves higher or climb their way up.
    After reading this, I shared the ideas here with several of my family and friends. They too were not surprised that this is neither a new problem nor a problem exclusive to humans. However, the general reaction I seemed to receive was that the environment for these adolescents can become less harsh if the adults in their lives were to step in more. Also, we wondered amongst ourselves, how many of those children would be alive today were it not for the fact that the idea of suicide and death has become romanticized in recent popular culture. Seeing how much attention this topic has received, this too has probably also furthered the idea that their death will make their situation more noticed.
    Unfortunately, bullying isn’t just an adolescent problem. Adults too will bully adults and even adolescents. Well call this abuse but it still happens, especially in the emotional sense. In these cases, classroom instruction and self-defense lessons become inefficient ways of dealing with the bully. In cases where a parent is bullying their child, perhaps resilience and self-motivation may be the only escape if no other adults opt to step in on the child’s behalf.

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  22. 22. Amanda Loveridge 11:02 pm 01/9/2012

    I agree that bullying is part of nature, but at the same time I believe there is more to it. Our parents are suppose to help us learn to be a better person as we grow older and teach us to respect others as well as any adult figure should. Although a problem I see today is that more and more kids are having childern of their own.

    Just recently I have read an article about a five yr old having a baby in 1939. How do we expect these parents to raise their children properly if the are still kids themselves? I had a friend in Junior high that had a child and she decided to keep her baby girl. Its not that I didn’t think she would of been a bad mother, but she was still learning how to take care of herself.

    I agrre that bullying appears in different types of animals and sharks are one of the wosrt I believe. This is because before they are even born, they fight with their siblings and even kill them. Thats why sharks usually have only one offspring at a time.

    What scares me is that bullying comes in all shapes and sizes, you can’t escape from it. I grew up in a small town but that didn’t mean we all got along. It got to the point where I was witnessing teachers bullying students around but yet they continued to work in the school districts. I was never bullied that much growing up with other kids, but I was the youngest in my family. I grew up being pick on all the time and I was always the test dummy. I got beat up constanently when I was younger but at the same time I wouldn’t change a thing, because they made me stornger physically and emotionally. I couldn’t have asked for anything better, well maybe a hug every now and then.

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  23. 23. chels91 11:06 pm 01/9/2012

    I have never really thought of bullying as a problem until the recent suicides. I am still relatively young, and remembering middle school, although I was not a victim or perpetrator of bullying I did witness it.

    In the article the author speaks about the two kinds of bullying. Bullying that is meant to keep social order, and then bullying that is is meant primarily to harm the other person. Growing up I think the majority of the bullying I witness was that of the former. It is very interesting to look back with a better understanding of my time in middle school. The people who were on the receiving end of bullying, were usually the ones attempting to challenge the “populars”, or people who made moves to improve their social status. If you kept to yourself and your group of friends you were largely left alone in my middle school.It seems as if present day bullying is more inline with the the second of the two forms mentioned above.

    I spoke to some friends and they told me that in their opinion, everyone has been both a victim and perpetrator of bullying whether they knew it or not. I thought this was so interesting because I don’t consider myself being apart of bullying at all.

    From the article I gather, that bullying is apart of the animal nature, and I think it is something that can never truly be “fixed”. I think the degree of bullying has increased, and the age in which it starts has decreased. In my opinion I think we should not attack bullying itself, because its a lost cause. I think we need to address our children teach them what bullying is, what it may stem from, and ways to combat it.

    Bullying is going no where. We need to learn how to deal with it, in this new era that makes it more anonymous and vicious.

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  24. 24. ec194010 12:02 am 01/10/2012

    Why is the atypical always shunned? In our modern society, with characters like Barney proclaiming “You are special,” we should expect differences to be celebrated, especially since we see our culture changed daily by the actions of individuals. Perhaps in this way, bullying is more about making ourselves feel better and stand out than mere dominance and conformity. If I can raise myself above another person, in my own eyes and therefore—in my mind—the eyes of others, then why shouldn’t I? One friend, after reading this, argued that by boiling bullying down to simple intimidation, the phenomenon loses its human aspect, which could be done by any comparison of any characteristics. Humans, he believes, bully in part to prove their self-worth to their parents and, by extension, the community.

    How are we going to face this crisis of increasing bullying? I agree with rt126208: we can’t simply pour money into anti-bullying programs within the schools. Children learn their behavior from adults, so to get to the root of the problem—childhood bullying—we must first address the behavior of adults. As terrible as it may sound, maybe there is no ultimate solution to this question. Maybe we—sadly—must resort to teaching our kids how to toughen up in the face of bullies and stand up for themselves. If we help the bullied make the bullies think it is no longer worth it to bully, then perhaps the problem will slowly go away.

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  25. 25. st372308 12:08 am 01/10/2012

    I found this blog to be quite interesting, but a little unsettling. Bullying seems to be part of a universal trend witnessed through all human cultures, and even observed across other animal species.

    I would agree that the data collected on humans, chimps, baboons, rats, and other species seem to provide compelling evidence to the very likely possibility that bullying is an inherited mechanism. Used from an evolutionary stand point to allow aggressors to bully others to gain resources, maintain or gain a high(er) positions within a social hierarchy and/or gain reproductive access. From a bully’s stand point all these potentials are definitely seen as positive gains for them, and logically speaking it makes sense to me that over the years it didn’t just disappear.

    Unfortunately, as we evolved, the way we bully others has as well. Humans ability to use complex language has made bullying not just physical but mentally abusive. I believe that although we may have evidence that points to bullying as a trait shared by our evolutionary relatives, we shouldn’t succumb to this as a crutch but instead we should relish in the fact that each of us is born with a free will, and try to live to a higher standard than others around us and before us that have bullied. Although it might be hard to convince kids to live to a higher standard, we should take a stricter stance policing kids in schools, to stop bullying before it ever get’s to the point of kids taking the lives of themselves or others.

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  26. 26. jb310208 12:12 am 01/10/2012

    I find it fascinating that bullying can be observed in species such as rats and mice as well as primates. Knowing that chimps and baboons are engaging in bullying is surprising, yet somehow not surprising, simply because these species are very social beings just like humans. The most interesting part of this blog for me would have to be that although bullying probably developed within life forms as a survival method and a way of creating a more unified and uniform gene pool and behaviors, bullying expanded to be not about survival or genetics whatsoever. It is now a completely social phenomenon that, with the use of language, can be manipulated to any means in order to belittle or alienate someone, sometimes for no reason at all.
    Although I never personally witnessed any physical bullying, I did come across a lot of cyber bullying growing up, seeing as my generation was really the first to develop bullying through the internet, and no preventative measures were taken yet. Cyber bullying has taken the concept of bullying to a whole different level, seeing as people can now bully people they’ve never met, live across the globe, or someone sitting 2 feet away from them. The internet is too large and too easily accessible to control who uses it for what purposes.
    Seeing as it is an evolutionary trait, it would be impossible to rid the world of bullying once and for all, but I do believe it is possible for the intensity to be cut down, through more parental involvement, more strict age limitations on social networking websites, and generalized methods of displaying the effects bullying can have on an individual.

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  27. 27. cp359707 5:17 am 01/10/2012

    It’s disheartening to see this evidence that shows bullying is not a product of any specific culture system. As you’ve essentially said, this means it goes a lot deeper than many people understand or imagine and that there is no quick or easy solution to the problem. I found the analysis of text and online bullying especially interesting. Bullies use these new technologies to reduce the risk of physical confrontation and therefore reduce the risk to themselves. As someone who has grown up through the progression of the technologies that allow this, I can easily see that this is true. I believe I’ve seen bullying get worse and more intense as far as the emotional and psychological effects go because bullies are less afraid of consequences and sometimes words and rumors hurt a lot worse than a punch. I don’t advocate violence, but it seems like less kids are encouraged to “fight back” anymore. I put that in quotes because I don’t necessarily mean physically defending themselves against bullies, but even just standing up for themselves by telling an authority figure or trying to be more clever than the bully. I remember the latter being a big deal in my elementary school experience. Then, of course, there’s always the issue of whether or not authority figures are actually going to help the kids to listen to their attempts to reach out.

    You’ve mentioned that male chimps practice bullying-like behaviors until the target submits by making a sound and hand gesture. If the prehistoric goal that has been passed down through evolutionary processes is to get the bullying victim to submit, then why does it seem that human bullies keep kicking when someone is down and back off if someone stands their ground? As you’ve said, we’ve incorporated language into bullying, complicating it beyond the actions of chimpanzees.

    While it definitely seems that it’s a natural human behavior, there have got to be other factors that go into bullying behaviors. While I obviously don’t have a solution to the problem, it’s apparent to me that parents have to play a big role. Kids need to be taught what is right and wrong. Think back to your childhood. Kids are just mean to each other, but not all of them consistently bully. This isn’t chance. If acceptance and kindness aren’t valued in their home environment, why would we expect those children to be kind? More parents should realize they have large role in bringing an end to this increase in bullying. Not only can they help to prevent children from wanting to bully, they can help their kids, if they are targets of bullying, by listening. Some kids don’t necessarily know how to talk about it, and sometimes their cries for help aren’t realized until too late. Unfortunately, their advice comes too late and burns in the chest of far too many families and fiends of victims of bullying. As Jamey Rodemeyer’s parents tell us in their interviews a week after their son’s death, “Make [your kids] talk or get them the help they need[...]get them to talk.”

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  28. 28. mr154600 8:49 pm 02/3/2012

    The adult tolerance of bullying is an interesting phenomenon to me. While acknowledging that (sometimes) some adults really may not see what is going on, I look at the recent case of the Anoka-Hennepin school district in Minnesota. There have been nine suicides in less than two years by middle school and high school students due to bullying and the lack of response to the situation by the adults/teachers/school administration who were aware of what was happening.
    Jerzy New mentioned that Mbuti adults in Africa slap teen bullies when they see bullying behavior. Sounds good to me.I remember, all through school, teachers yelling at bullies or disciplining them however they saw fit, at least acknowledging what was happening and trying to stop it. For the most part it seemed to work, except in some cases where the bullying behavior was merely relocated to a different venue.
    The idea that bullying is an international phenomenon that also crosses species makes the topic even more interesting (if not more confusing regarding possible origins, as well). It has to be recognized that this is a universal behavior for any real change to be made. Yet how does one get a person to end a behavior that results in them being in an advantageous position? If we can figure out this question then maybe we can better find a way to act against bullying in the future. I have no idea; I’m just glad to see that the topic of bullying is getting more attention.

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  29. 29. CuriousGeographer 4:08 pm 02/29/2012

    I found this blog post disturbing in its premature jump to universal conclusions and the way in which those commenting so uncritically accepted this.

    Note how the author’s referenced premise that bullying ranges on a continuum between nations (and assumed cultures) leads to the totalizing conclusion that bullying is therefore “human nature”. They write of the _one_ study they cite: “the amount of bullying experienced by kids in those 28 countries varied greatly, with the least severe happening among girls in Sweden and the most severe among boys in Lithuania” and then quote from that original paper: “there was a consistent, strong and _graded_ association” [my emphasis]. But because bullying was not completely absent in any country, the author of this blog concludes that it therefore must be universal. This implies, of course, that we can only ever expect it, and that there is little we can do about it. They then go on to describe chimp and baboon bullying, two species known for their higher levels of aggression, and completely ignore other primates also closely related to humans like bonobos, who exhibit very low levels of aggression. Again, there is a continuum here. But the author’s research focus– chimpanzees– becomes the representative and iconic human equivalent.

    I see this blog entry as not only an irresponsible application of science to social problems, but outright dangerous in its potential to mislead. Basing proposed social and biological fact, bordering on “law”, from single empirical studies (that actually reveal nuance) and indirect evidence is ill advised.

    I am also left wondering how this argument will advance research on bullying or approaches to its reduction? What, Dr. Sherrow, does pulling bullying “up by its roots” entail? If it is part of our genes, as you argue here, and social programs are only temporary exercises in futility, then is the answer human extirpation or genetic modification? Or, dismissal of the problem by framing homocide and suicide victims as the “collateral damage” of human genes? Give me a break.

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  30. 30. hogansherrow 9:59 pm 02/29/2012

    Curious – thanks for your comments and thoughts, part of the reason I wrote this commentary was to provoke thought in an area that I feel has been neglected regarding bullying. Our over-emphasis on the social conditions that lead to bullying, without a deeper understanding of the root of bullying will lead us to fall short in our efforts to curtail or prevent the behavior. Before I get to your question about pulling bullying “up by its roots” I’m going to address some of your assertions and criticisms.

    First, regarding the universality of bullying in the human species. Contrary to your claims that the article on bullying across cultures was, “…the _one_ study they cite” or that “…because bullying was not completely absent in any country, the author of this blog concludes that it therefore must be universal.” I actually used multiple studies to support my conclusion. The study you mention, that I quoted from, was actually one of six that I used to demonstrate the ubiquity of bullying across human cultures. If you look back on the article itself you’ll see that you misrepresented or misunderstood the number of studies used to support the universal nature of bullying. One line of evidence that I decided to omit [though probably should have included] was the spontaneous bullying behavior so often observed in very young children. There is a wealth of information on nursery school aged children spontaneously bullying others in different social settings.

    Second, your assertion that I imply, “…that we can only ever expect it, and that there is little we can do about it.” On the contrary, I advocate that the only way to do something lasting and effective about any problematic behavior is to understand its origins and include all lines of evidence in the discussion and resultant policies and actions targeting the behavior. Again, part of the reason I wrote this commentary was to catalyze deeper discussion on bullying.

    Third, your statement that I “…completely ignore other primates also closely related to humans like bonobos, who exhibit very low levels of aggression.” and choose to focus instead on baboons and chimpanzees, “…two species known for their higher levels of aggression.” Chimpanzees and baboons are highly aggressive, true, but I could have substituted a number of species for either one, and could even include bonobos, which you claim, “…exhibit very low levels of aggression.” Bonobo males and females compete for dominance in distinct hierarchies. Male bonobos are agonistic toward each other in a significant percentage of their interactions and do not form close ties with each other. Female bonobos establish dominance hierarchies and use coalitions with other females to advance their positions in the hierarchies and to keep males from asserting physical power. Again, not even among the “hippy apes” do we see conditions devoid of bullying-like behavior. I chose to use baboons and chimpanzees as my examples because they are the best known primate species both by the scientific community and the general public. I resent your implication that I was cherry-picking data by your statement that chimpanzees became, “…the representative and iconic human equivalent.”

    Fourth, your claim that this commentary is an, “…irresponsible application of science to social problems” and, “…outright dangerous in its potential to mislead.” is dramatic, but ill advised considering your misunderstanding or misrepresentation of the number of studies used and the proposal of the commentary itself. I did not propose social or biological fact, bordering on “law” from single empirical studies (see the first point above). Further, the fact that the Due et al (2005) article indicated nuance in bullying across cultures has nothing to do with its universal nature. We expect to see behaviors vary in their intensity and frequency based on cultural influences. What we don’t expect to see is behaviors that are not universal across human cultures present regardless of the culture being studied.

    Finally, your suggestion that I am dismissing the problem by “…framing homocide and suicide victims as the “collateral damage” of human genes is insulting and ignorant of what I wrote. Your response seems to be one that is filled with reactionary rhetoric toward an assumption of my espousing genetic determinism, when that is not the case at all.

    It will do us little, if any good, to continue to use a culturally relative approach when trying to understand human behavior that is deeply rooted in our evolutionary past. If we are going to be successful in our efforts to curtail any of these damaging behaviors, like bullying, we have to take all of the evidence into account. We have to consider the origins of these behaviors, not just their current cultural manifestations. In fact, I would argue that the real danger is the approach taken by too many experts and policy makers that ignores the biological variables associated with behaviors like bullying.

    Again, thanks for reading and for your comments, I hope my response is taken with more open mindedness and careful consideration than the original piece.

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  31. 31. CuriousGeographer 2:09 am 03/1/2012

    Dr. Sherrow: thank you for taking the time to so promptly read and respond to my comment. I have given it careful consideration as you wished. I do not think that “open mindedness” is the issue here. I accept your criticism that I gave your referencing on worldwide bullying short shrift; there was indeed one other study you cited, besides Due et al. 2005, that compared bullying in different nations (Smith et al. 2002). From what I can gather (I don’t have the time to read each at the moment), the others—Boehm 2000, Turnbull 1961, and Wang 2009—are not comparative, at least not statistically. But my concern is not with long reference lists.

    By stating that bonobos were notably less aggressive, I was not implying that they are devoid of bullying or hierarchies. To imply that I was is a red herring (speaking of rhetoric). Again, it is the continuum of differences that I stressed and now stress:

    “We expect to see behaviors vary in their intensity and frequency based on cultural influences [indeed!]. What we don’t expect to see is behaviors that are not universal across human cultures present regardless of the culture being studied.”

    I will try to spell this out more clearly: when one suggests that a behaviour is “universal” or an evolutionary truth, it frames the question as an ontological binary—something either universally (ahem), is or is not. This ignores the principle of degrees, the significance of quantities and qualities. If we say that country A has 10,000 car crashes per year, and country B has 100, we could say that car crashes are universal. After all, the car could be seen as the long-standing origin of car crashes, ever-present in all events going back to 1920. But how does that forward the debate and guide policy? Too, what if country A’s crashes led to 1,000 deaths and country B’s only 1 (i.e. the qualities of the crashes, and the magnitude of their impacts, were different)? Is it then useful to disregard these differences, and the contexts—particularly social contexts—by homogenizing crashes as a universal part of the package? Automobiles do inherently bring the possibility of automobile crashes, but that does not undermine the efficacy of culturally tuned social interventions in changing the figures or outright eliminating automobiles. Eliminating humans is not an option in the present debate, but changing behaviour through cultural approaches is. Unleashed in public fora, the “universal” argument is often taken to preclude the possibility of change—something I have gathered is a basic facet of evolution, unless I am mistaken.

    On a continuum of bullying, am I not bullying you somewhat now with my multiple, critical comments? And are you not bullying me back? Why is this different from the bullied gay teenager in high-school? It is different in part because of the context: (a) there is a power balance– you have letters and I currently have some degree of anonymity, and our options for response are broad, (b) we have learned how to pick on each other’s ideas in civilized ways and terms (language, as you pointed out in the piece), and (c) “debate” is encouraged on sites like these, in countries like ours, and in science in general. These contexts are not only biological, but socially and culturally shaped. I know you know this from your statement that:

    “Humans have further altered the impact of bullying-like behaviors through cultural practices and norms that celebrate violence and demand conformity to a narrow view of what is acceptable and normal. In the multi-national study mentioned earlier, the most intensive bullying was found in countries where violence and social intolerance are the most commonplace (Due et al, 2005). In the US, views on violence, sexuality and what is normal impact the actions of our youth, and play on our inherent tendencies to coerce others into conformity.”

    What I don’t understand is why you then burry that idea back under “evolutionary history”. Why will it “do us little, if any good, to continue to use a culturally relative approach”?

    Again, I challenge you to offer something concrete and specific to reduce destructive bullying as per your evolutionary argument. I am serious—what are policy makers to do with the “biological variables”? Drugs? Perhaps this challenge is unfair, as I see no socially acceptable ways in which biological determinism can form the basis of an actionable intervention in this case.

    Believe it or not, I am not opposed to biological explanations for things and in fact devour the fruits of such research with more vigour than one might expect from someone trained in part in the social sciences. What I am very uncomfortable with, and sometimes angered by (as you could tell by the tone of my earlier comment), are the ways the theories of this fallible science are so often taken as infallible by the public, generalized across time and space, and rendered prescriptive. Re-read some of the comments above: “The fact that we are ‘born’ to be bullies is frightening and uncomfortable…” “as Dr. Sherrow stated in the blog, though we are wired to portray bullying like qualities…” “I think we’re born with the pre-existing behavior of bullying…. If we’re arguing that bullying is in fact a human condition, then no matter what we do, it is still going to be present.” You are implying biological fact, even if that is not your intent (as you say, “nothings is proven in science”). Human history has many examples where such theories have been acted upon in extreme and devastating ways, which is why I brought up extirpation in my prior comment and drugs in this one. I am not implying that you believe these to be the answer, but with a dearth of alternative approaches offered I wish to show where some may go. I am sorry that you found it extreme and/or insulting. We must be careful.

    I also want to say that I do not believe that governmental approaches or social movements are perfect and comprehensive—clearly they are not. That does not, however, mean that they are worthy of dismissal. If your goal is simply to point out that we will never completely or permanently eliminate bullying, I tend to agree. Let’s move on.

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  32. 32. hogansherrow 3:02 pm 03/2/2012

    Curious: Thanks for your second reply. I only have a few minutes, but to answer your questions briefly this time:
    1) You may be attempting to bully me, but I can assure you I’m not doing that. I don’t think you’re trying to bully me, and the behavioral distinctions are important.

    2) Nuance is important, but let’s be clear about the discourse surrounding bullying before I published my commentary, and one that continues in large part today. Bullying was framed as a cultural phenomenon and problem, only. Biological factors have not been included in the discussion. Without including the biological in our approaches, they will continue to fail.

    3) I am finalizing the details on my proposal for including biological data in our policies regarding bullying and a host of other issues, and if you want to follow me on twitter and/or FB I will be updating those sites with that information as I further refine it.

    4) One last thing, you should try not to use terms like “scientific truth” or “genetic/biological determinisim” that is not what I am suggesting or stating at all. There is no “truth” in science, there are facts and just because something has been selected for, and is present across a species, does not mean that individuals are predetermined to act a certain way.

    Take care.

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  33. 33. MD_Grabe 4:15 pm 05/14/2012

    FYI: you got the definition wrong as it only reveals the tip of the iceberg and the rest of it encompasses far more – including the “spontaneous pre-school” bullying. But I am not surprised – such is typical of Western thinking. What I mean is we cannot look at bullying from the typical individualistic and punitive vantage point. The real problem is in the social ambience of the K-12 setting. And to understand the social ambience we need to understand the social human animal (which by the way is still very much at play even in dozens of professional settings I have experienced.)

    One can philosophize and theorize and it all doesn’t matter if one cannot: 1) understand the true definition of bullying, 2) the true origins of bullying (root cause analysis), and 3) be willing to consider vantage points that are contrary to one’s own biases.

    Bullying should not be viewed as an act perpetrated but rather those acts are mere higher degrees of what occurs all the time. With this understanding in mind, in investigating the social nature of human beings we need to cross disciplines, including at least: social psychology, evolutionary psychology, comparative psychology, sociobiology, and neuroscience. I’m not talking about the mythological mysticism or psychodynamic theories or even mental healthcare. I’m talking about an all-public-bias aside, objective look into empirical scholarship.

    If I were an extraterrestrial looking in on the human species, I would marvel at how narrow minded they can be – regardless of level of education. I would marvel at, for instance, how they have no problem believing that the anti-social personality of Patient A is due to the new brain tumor disrupting their brain’s executive function, or Patient B unable to learn language because of a lesion in the language instinct area. But we refuse to think that anything else differs completely from the rest of the animal kingdom, that our brains have nothing to do with it – and that the brain structures responsible for the similar behavior in animals lights up in PET or fMRI scans in humans exhibiting such behavior.

    So, here it is: human beings have numerous instincts, which can be defined briefly as tendencies toward behavior we are not consciously aware of until after the behavior or thought conclusions occur. Of all the instincts the most prevalent in human behavior relating to such issues as bullying involves social instinct. Understanding the social nature of children is actually not that hard but interestingly, typical biases and belief systems in educators allow the social jungle to flourish – and young children can fool the wisest of them.

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  34. 34. MD_Grabe 4:31 pm 05/14/2012

    Here is a post you might find interesting:

    Here I will provide a common example of a belief system at work that cloaks the problem. This can be found in the typical K-12 environment. In this example I will reveal two common beliefs. One is the belief that if a child acts kindly to another child when the teacher is looking, the child must also act kindly when the teacher is not looking. After all, why would a child be so two-faced? This leads to the next belief – the belief in the good nature of a child’s character and thus is not capable of being unkind for no apparent reason. Before I get into the character of children, it is important to understand a general belief system that also is at play.

    There is a general belief system at play holding that being unkind requires an evil disposition and that most children would never be unkind, so bullies are rare. Moreover, teachers tend to stereotype the children in their classrooms toward a more positive direction, meaning they would be inclined to resist believing unkind things are being perpetrated by children in their class.

    What we call unkind is largely what we base on our experience in what is culturally and legally right and wrong, as well as our ability to empathize. It is easy to take for granted that children do not have the same experiential base as we do or the same ability to empathize as we do. But these factors may not even come into play in the moment-by-moment social setting of the immediately unsupervised context of the K-12 academe (immediate unsupervised context includes the few moments when the teacher is talking to another student). Those are the “social jungle” contexts that may invoke automatic social tendencies.

    When the teacher is not looking, if a child tells another child she or he is stupid for no apparent reason, the teacher may be slow to believe such a case because he or she already has an implicit theory about the children in the classroom but also perhaps the character of the so-called perpetrator. Our tendency to develop implicit theories about the characters of others, and the fallacy of such, is a well-established psychological phenomenon. This is especially pronounced in K-12 education for very good reason.

    For one, the teacher likely has no clue why children can be so cruel. Lacking training on the physiological motivation of children hinders such understanding. Of course, there are likely political reasons why such training is omitted as it involves three major sources of ideological contention: mind-body dualism, predetermination vs. blank-slate, and evolution. The purpose for unkind behavior lies in what is called social instinct. I will get more into that in a later post.

    Regarding character, such requires some degree of consistency and the physiological equipment to maintain such consistency. This is not a casual statement. The implications is actually rather critical. The physiological equipment required to even have character lies in the brains’ executive function. The structures of the brain comprising the executive function is extremely immature in children – in fact, it takes about a quarter century to totally develop. So to assume the character of children is to make assumptions children don’t have the biological equipment to fulfill.

    What this all means is the teachers are slow to accept that for instance little miss so-and-so – the angel, is calling that big ole boy stupid. All it takes is one time the teacher not to believe the boy for the boy to never tell the teacher again. This affords latitude for the “angle” to continue. Perhaps this is why kids who are bullied will tell their friends and therapists that teachers don’t help when they are bullied.

    So why would the “angel” be so unkind? She is not evil, nor does she have a bad character. Remember, character requires physiological equipment she has yet to develop. The answer to this lies in the social nature of children. More on that later.

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  35. 35. forum184 5:37 pm 11/6/2013

    The biggest problem with Bullying is that people think it is only kids. Look around. Every where you look there is some one being targeted for their differences. Another thing wrong with this is the phrase, bullying. It’s harassment, not some childish name-calling. We need to open our eyes to the real problem, and stop sugar coating it with nice words like bullying.

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  36. 36. GW-58 4:03 pm 11/18/2013

    A very thought provoking article – thank you, Dr Sherrow. It is interesting how heated we can become when something conflicts with our perception of how our society SHOULD work. It is in this heat, I’d suggest, that bullying behaviour tends to be exhibited.

    Personally, I agree with the implication of forum184′s recent comment that the term ‘bullying’ now has such a strong image associated with it that it is perhaps better to see it as just one form of ‘harassment’ and to focus our attention on this instead.

    In adult life it may be harassment, or domestic abuse. In the 90s, I recall an Australian academic suggesting that many organisation development initiatives (think TQM) were also forms of institutional bullying as they presented individuals with an ultimatum – conform to the new social norms of this organisation or be expelled.

    I work mainly in the corporate sector, largely at the top of organisations where I engage one-to-one with leaders. I would argue that harassment – largely, though not exclusively, of individuals – is very much an item in the tool-kit for maintaining the strength of the Freudian ‘id’ of leaders of these institutions.

    In business (and the public sector), there are rarely authority figures like teachers, who can intervene. Instead, I have frequently seen HR professionals collude with this harassment by advising previously highly respected, long-term, executives that their performance is unsatisfactory and offering them terms to leave the organisation. In my experience, this is often initiated because the behavioural norms of the victim (frequently, more passive, socially-invested, and sympathetic to their reports) do not match the more aggressive stance of the perpetrator. Few such victims are in a position to refuse the offer, which is usually made with a non-disclosure clause. They are sometimes very glad to be able to get away because it often follows a prolonged period of private and public humiliation by the ‘perp’.


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  37. 37. Gooisoft 9:17 am 11/20/2013

    One the one hand we can observe and interpret. On the other hand we can focus on programs that are proven to work to mitigate the problem.

    As one of the directors of the Mindful Policy Group I have a particular interest the subject and would like to point to a program I came across about fifteen years ago which has been growing around the world and which, among many beneficial effects, includes dramatic decreases in bullying.

    It’s called the Roots of Empathy program and started in Canada many years ago. The program past the milestone of having reached over half a million participants this year.

    It works…over time…(they have the figures to prove it) and is a low cost way to reduce a very expensive problem.

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  38. 38. hogansherrow 9:15 pm 02/3/2014

    GW-58, I would be very interested to talk to you more about bullying and harassment in corporate arenas. You can reach me at

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  39. 39. Daniel598Paul 1:46 am 04/2/2015

    I was deal with the same condition, but still i never thought about suicide. This is my message to everyone, never suicide and just make yourself much stronger.

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  40. 40. JohnWalker 5:14 am 04/17/2015

    As per my opinion, i hat bulling. And it should be considered as a crime.

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