December 2011, Week 3


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The Origins of Bullying
By Hogan Sherrow
Scientific American
December 15, 2011

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

The response to this crisis in the United States has
been efforts at the local, regional and Federal
(stopbullying.gov) 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

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

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

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

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.


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