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Animal Rites: What Animal Behavior Teaches Us About Bullying

Animals have a lot to teach us about bullying behaviors.

Can bullying behavior ever be stopped? For the last half decade or more our attention to the very real suffering that bullying causes has led to an entire industry focused on “bullies.” Yet for all our attention to the topic, has it really done much to reduce aggression in schools, the workplace and communities?

Perhaps one reason it has been so difficult to change aggressive behaviors is because by focusing on the individual “bully,” we lose sight of the power of group psychology to cause otherwise kind and humane people to act cruelly and inhumanely. This phenomenon of group aggression is most easily provoked, and the most powerful, when someone in leadership makes it clear that they want someone out. When that happens, subordinates rapidly respond to the call for assistance in eliminating the unwanted worker, student, or friend.

In my new ebook, Mobbed! Surviving Adult Bullying and Mobbing, I explore the phenomenon of group aggression and offer a number of strategies for self-preservation. Written mainly for workers, but applicable to almost any setting where people live and work together in groups, Mobbed! takes a close look at animal behavior to show how much of the aggression we witness in social settings is innate, patterned and predictable. If it is innate, then, can it be stopped? I would argue that no, it cannot be stopped altogether, but it can be prevented, or at least controlled, in most cases—if the target is both aware and prepared. Perhaps the best way to survive the aggression of the group is not so much changing the behavior of the aggressors, as it is learning from animals what the target can do to change the outcome once the fangs have been exposed. Here’s an excerpt:

Primate research has demonstrated the multitude of ways in which the bullying behavior of a high-status member can turn otherwise peaceful group members into a gang of thugs. Take rhesus monkeys, for example. In his book, Macachiavellian Intelligence: How Rhesus Macaques and Humans Have Conquered the World, primatologist Dario Maestripieri shows the cunning and manipulative strategies that rhesus monkeys deploy to gain status and power in their societies—in a manner which is strikingly similar to how humans behave at work and at war.

Maestripieri opens his book with the tale of a bully macaque who bites a well-liked adolescent male named Buddy. Rather than end the conflict by countering with an equally-painful blow, or showing submission and surrender to the bully, Buddy ran away in pain. By failing to gain or show respect, Buddy’s display of weakness invited pursuit, and the bully escalated his abuse, as Buddy’s friends rushed to join in the excitement. Rather than assist their friend who was under attack, however, Buddy’s friends pursued and attacked him, causing the researchers who were observing the encounter to remove Buddy from the group for his own protection.

When Buddy was returned to the group, his former playmates badgered him, knocking him down and challenging him to fight. Still weak from the anesthesia the researchers had given him after removing him from the prior attack, Buddy’s vulnerable state was exploited by the very playmates he grew up with. Mastripieri describes what happened:

“Buddy has spent every day of his life in the enclosure with all the other monkeys. They all eat the same food and sleep under the same roof. . . . . They were there when he was born. They held him and cuddled him when he was an infant. They have watched him grow, day by day, every day of his life. Yet, that day, if the researchers had not taken Buddy out of the group, he would have been killed. . . . He was weak and vulnerable. The behavior of the other monkeys changed swiftly and dramatically—from friendliness to intolerance, from play to aggression. Buddy’s vulnerability became an opportunity for others to settle an old score, improve their position in the dominance hierarchy, or eliminate a potential rival for good. In rhesus macaque society, maintaining one’s social status, being tolerated by others, and ultimately surviving at all may depend on how quickly one runs and how effectively one uses the right signal, with the right individual, at the right time.” (Mastripieri, 2007:4, 5).

This same pattern of harassment is found in wolves which will rarely organize to attack other packs of wolves, but will routinely single out weakened members of their own group for prolonged harassment, almost always instigated by an alpha wolf and carried out with the frenzied compliance of lower-ranking wolves. According to the renowned naturalist and wolf expert R. D. Lawrence, wolves literally “follow their leader” and turn on their pack members if a high-ranking alpha does so. To stop the harassment, the victimized wolf must show signs of submission—by lying on its back, exposing its throat, belly and groin to the alphas—or by fleeing.

For more on just what it means to show submission or flee in the workplace or community, take a look at Mobbed! It’s available on Kindle, but if you don’t have a Kindle, you can download a free reader app on the Amazon site that will allow you to read any Kindle book. And if you don’t want to read the book, keep a watch on this site where I’ll continue to discuss the many ways in which human aggression is ignited and enflamed once the call to attack has been sounded. There’s more than one way to beat a bully, and it starts with knowing ourselves--and our animal natures.

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