Why do some adolescents bully their peers?
The stock answer is that bullying behavior is the symptom of a psychological problem. That bullies are low in self-esteem, or high in shame. That they are pathologically aggressive or confrontational. To some extent, these explanations may be true. But recently psychologists have begun to wonder if bullying might be a rational strategy some kids use to get ahead.
Of course, it should go without saying that bullying is deplorable. It is unlikely that any scientist thinks bullying can be justified, or that violence should be ignored. However, if we are to understand why some adolescents are motivated to bully their peers, we need to examine all the costs and benefits associated with bullying.
Daniel Provenzano of the University of Windsor in Ontario, along with his colleagues at Ontario’s Brock University, noticed that bullies tend to report a higher number of dating and sexual partners. Bullies could, of course, be prone to exaggeration. Nevertheless, the link between bullying and sex suggests that victimizing peers could be part of a sexual strategy.
But how, you might ask, can bullying lead to sex? One possibility is that when an adolescent bullies a rival, that rival is intimidated into withdrawing from competition for mates. Perhaps the victim of bullying chooses not to attend parties, or to join school clubs and sports teams. If he or she isn’t mixing with potential partners, this gives the bully an advantage on the social scene. Bullies may also advertise their dominance, a trait that others find alluring, or make their victims seem less attractive by denigrating their appearance or spreading rumors about their sexual behavior.
Provenzano and his colleagues asked hundreds of older and younger adolescents about their experience with bullying and sex. They also subjected their volunteers to personality tests.
You may have heard of the Big 5 personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. But some psychologists think there is a sixth dimension of personality: honesty-humility. This trait describes how people differ in their sincerity, fairness, greed, and modesty. Those who score low on honesty-humility are more likely to manipulate others, to cheat or steal to get ahead, and to feel they are somehow ‘better’ than their peers.
Provenzano found that adolescents low in honesty-humility reported more sexual partners, but that bullying also had a mediating effect on mating success. In other words, adolescents who scored low on honesty-humility were more likely to bully others, and bullies reported greater success in attracting sexual partners.
Extroverts, especially among the younger adolescents, reported more sexual partners — but there was no mediating effect of bullying. This implies that extroverts are able to secure dates without resorting to peer victimization. Younger adolescents low in agreeableness were also more likely to bully, as were older adolescents who were low in conscientiousness.
Provenzano’s results suggest that motivations for bullying change over the course of adolescence, but that teens low in honesty-humility are consistently more likely to bully, and to reap the benefits of bullying on their love lives.
These findings have the potential to inform how educators and campaigners tackle the problem of adolescent bullying. As the researchers point out:
Many [anti-bullying] interventions do not explicitly address possible sexual competition as a goal of bullying. Given that adolescence is characterized both by sexual maturation and the onset of sexual behavior, this is a potentially crucial oversight.
Provenzano, D. A., Dane, A. V., Farrell, A. H., Marini, Z. A., & Volk, A. A. (in press). Do bullies have more sex? The role of personality. Evolutionary Psychological Science.