Benefits of Bullying? A Test of the Evolutionary Hypothesis in Three Cohorts

For this week’s #MustReadMonday, we are excited to highlight a recent (in press) paper by Dr. Tina Kretschmer: Benefits of Bullying? A Test of the Evolutionary Hypothesis in Three Cohorts. This article examines adult outcomes of adolescent bullying perpetration from an evolutionary perspective—be on the lookout for an update with the link to the full article coming soon!

Dr. Kretschmer took some time to answer our questions on her article, bullying perpetration, and exciting future directions for this line of research. Here is what she had to say:

If you had to choose one main takeaway from your article, what would it be?

I think it is particularly interesting that bullies report lower health in later life. Although there were some indications that this would be the case in earlier studies, it is quite striking to see this association in rigorous analyses that account for all kinds of confounders over many decades. But I also find interesting that bullies have more children and how this is in line with what Tony Volk suggested as evolutionary advantage of a behavior that we typically see as maladaptive. Like I discuss in the paper, maybe what is most interesting is the combination of these two results – bullies are more successful in reproducing but less healthy. I’m curious what we will make of this as a research community.

In your paper, you mention that fast life strategies could also increase the likelihood of bullying behavior and contribute to an earlier age at which someone first has sex. For those not familiar with this research and the life history theory, could you expand on what fast life strategies are and how they could lead to such outcomes?

Life history theory as applied to humans describes that individual differences in behavior can be explained by individuals investing in somatic or reproductive effort. Those who put priority on somatic effort are considered to follow a slow life history and invest in healthy, high-quality, future-oriented behaviors that are advantageous for longevity whereas those who put priority on reproductive effort are considered to follow a fast life history and invest in greater number of mating partners and offspring. Note that these are not two “bins” into which people can be divided but scores on measures of life history strategy have been linked to personality traits and criminal involvement as well as relationship satisfaction. Fast life history orientation would mean that individuals prioritize quantity of mating partners and offspring over quality of the relationship and over their own health, for instance, which is what we find for the bullying perpetrators in this study. Fast life history orientation is ultimately more beneficial in an evolutionary sense as it encourages high number of offspring (the primary aim). As such, if bullies have more offspring and engage in sex earlier, we might conclude that their behavior is indicative of fast life history orientation.

You mention in the discussion that there are different dimensions of bullying that may not have been captured through your study. One such dimension that comes to mind is online bullying, which has the potential of reaching a wider audience of the bully’s peers but can also be hidden behind private messages that only the bully and the victim can see. Do you think your findings would differ if the measures that were used were centered around online bullying specifically?

This is difficult to say because we know little about whether cyberbullying is similarly related to popularity as traditional bullying. I would expect that negative associations with health would hold, though, because this is also what we would expect when studying outcomes of bullying from a non-evolutionary perspective and assume that bullying is a marker of externalizing maladjustment. I would be curious to see whether cyberbullying is also linked to greater number of offspring but this is a research question for the future. It’s difficult to study this right now because social media are a relatively recent phenomenon that has not been assessed (or played a role even) in cohorts that are now adult and where we could reasonably reliably assess number of offspring. That is, if we take the BCS70 cohort, they were not teenagers anymore when the internet took off so we cannot even retrospectively assess cyberbullying in adolescence from them.

In your paper, you state “Reducing bullying in schools, however, will hardly eradicate evolutionary advantages for high-status individuals and high status among adolescents is linked to aggressive behavior.” Are there ways that schools or parents can discourage this need for a “social pecking order” among adolescents, or is this something that is evolutionarily ingrained in us as people?

We see from the literature on defending that those children who help victims of bullying can be just as popular as bullies, although this effect seems to wane off in adolescence. Antibullying interventions also sometimes focus on taking away the popularity-enhancing factor of bullying and increasing the popularity-enhancing factor of defending but this does not seem to work 100%. I also think that as long as adult bullies are powerful, if bullying in the workplace or as public figure is not shamed and punished, it’s difficult to really have a culture change among children and adolescents. Maybe it’s more effective – like you say – to teach that hierarchies and pecking orders are not something to strive for but this requires a change in thinking toward more equality in general. 

What do you wish more people knew about this topic?

I think those who are not immediately in this field of study often consider bullying perpetration a clear sign of maladjustment but it is important to keep in mind that bullies often are quite high up the hierarchy. They have power and a following, even if they are not liked by others. I continue to find it fascinating to study the origins of bullying – why do some children and adolescents become bullies and others don’t? What role do parents play? I don’t just mean with regard to parenting, but what role do their own experiences play? If they bullied others and were successful, what does that mean for how they handle when their child bullies others? I think we might need to think more about the intergenerational aspects to these kinds of behavior and keep in mind that bullying perpetration might have individual benefits that contribute to continuity across generations.

Looking forward, what would you say are some of the important next steps in this line of research?

We have employed some great datasets here but as we state in the discussion, the assessment of bullying is not optimal and we did not test for mechanisms. I think these are the main future directions:

1) Test hypotheses such as Volk’s evolutionary hypothesis with really good data. We have used TRAILS and peer nominations, which is great, but the participants were still too young to reliably assess reproductive success. I’m not aware of a dataset where bullying was assessed using different reporters and including different dimensions and where participants are in mid- to late adulthood already but this would be needed for an even more stringent test of the theory.

2) There is a plethora of studies on bullying and outcomes – many of which are cross-sectional but luckily also more and more longitudinal. Several meta-analyses have been published on the topic and, at least for victimization, we know an increasing amount about mechanisms that link the experience to later maladjustment. I hope that we will also zoom in on mechanisms that link perpetration to later outcomes. Why are bullies more likely to take drugs, for instance? I think the longitudinal cohorts that are growing up now will be of great value here but I also hope that we will take into account perspectives that are not yet common in the bullying field, such as genetic confounding. What I am looking forward to are studies that disentangle whether associations between bulling and outcomes are causal such that bullying really actually increases risk, or due to shared genes or other confounders, such that bullying is one expression of an underlying factor and drug use another expression.

Dr. Tina Kretschmer has completed her university education in Pedagogical Sciences, Psychology and Sociology at the Free University of Berlin, Germany before embarking on a PhD in Developmental Psychology at the University of Sussex, England. She has conducted postdoctoral research at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, England, the University of Groningen and the University Medical Centre Groningen, Netherlands. Since 2016, Dr. Kretschmer works at the Department for Pedagogy and Educational Sciences, University of Groningen where she focusses on the gene-environment interplay in explaining individual differences in social and behavioral development across the life course.


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