Why do people bully?
Is it anger? Recklessness? A lack of empathy?
None of the above says Tony Volk, an associate professor in the Department of Child and Youth Studies at Brock University in Canada. After studying the bullying practices of 400 Canadian adolescents, he found the most common trait among bullies was a willingness to exploit others and an arrogant belief that the rules don’t apply to them.
“Two things, sadly, we see a lot in the adult world today,” Volk says.
His interest in bullying was piqued in 2012 when he realized a few things:
1) Bullying has been ubiquitous throughout history.
2) Bullies have average or better social skills and mental health.
3) Bullies are gaining in popularity and dominance.
He wondered: What if bullying isn’t an aberration, but rather, an evolutionary strategy to lure mates? If that were the case, theoretically then, bullies would have more sexual partners.
Volk and his team set out to prove it by studying teens, ages 13 to 19, who completed a personality test and questionnaire to measure how frequently they bullied. And as it turns out, those who scored low in the “honesty-humility” category (i.e., sincerity, fairness, greed avoidance and modesty) were also the ones fucking the most.
To learn more, I recently spoke with Volk about the sex appeal of the bully; how women bully via slut-shaming and men via shitting on their fellow man; and why having power doesn’t necessarily equate to abusing it.
Why do bullies get laid so much?
We think bullying helps gain sexual partners in at least three ways.
1. One can look dominant, and that’s appealing across sexes.
2. One can use that dominance to scare off rivals.
3. One can use that dominance to coerce sexual partners.
Bullying is a signal of power — whether that’s good looks, strength, social skills, social power and/or financial wealth — which can be attractive to potential partners. It’s also a signal of one’s willingness to use that power to one’s own advantage. Presumably, that could extend to one’s sexual partners as well: Hook up with me, and you’ll benefit from my exploitation of others. We certainly aren’t the first to suggest that “power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.”
Do males and females bully differently?
Males are much, much more likely to use physical bullying to their advantage. The biggest difference isn’t in the forms or functions of bullying, but in the details. For example, boys are likely to target a competitor’s masculinity, while girls are more likely to target their competitor’s sexual fidelity. Though, within a relationship, both boys and girls can use jealous manipulation against their partner — but again, serious physical aggression is very male-biased in its perpetration.
You write bullying may only benefit adolescents with certain personality traits. What do you mean?
Not everyone who has power uses it to exploit others. For example, I presume the Pope doesn’t. Why then do the rest exploit others? Because their personality predisposes them to. That’s probabilistic, not deterministic — i.e., it’s more likely, not guaranteed. So the main goal of our study was to determine what traits not only led to bullying, but led toward bullying in order to try and get more partners. That would be the core personality trait underlying any adaptive behavior.
Is that the significance of a low “honesty-humility” score?
A low honesty-humility score not only predicts bullying but helps link it to an adaptive evolutionary outcome — selecting for and increasing the occurrence of beneficial trains in a population. That makes it much more coherent to explain how “evil” traits could be maintained by natural selection. Being nice is helpful in some cases, even if you have power. But there are also times when ruthlessly exploiting power for your own benefit is literally adaptive.
It helps to explain many of history’s worst characters and how Genghis Khan and his family are the fathers of one percent of humans alive today. It also explains why bullies do what they do today, and why it’s so very hard to stop this behavior. Besides power and status, it gets you sex — provided you have the personality type of thinking you deserve better than others and are willing to manipulate the less worthy to get what you deserve.
Why is it important to know this?
So we don’t waste time trying to teach adolescents empathy (feeling others) or anger control (self-discipline). Those can matter, but they aren’t driving the behavior.
So bullying isn’t all about empathy — or lack thereof?
Not exactly. I just made my lab watch Unforgiven with Clint Eastwood. You can see from that movie that you can lack empathy and not be the root of the evil. Instead, it’s the arrogant, predatory traits that really drive nasty behavior.