Bullies are often portrayed as big, mean dopes with secretly terrible home lives—think Nelson on The Simpsons—but a new study suggests that may not (always) be the case.
In fact, according to research published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, high school-aged bullies are less depressed, more popular, and more likely to get dates than their allegedly less-cool classmates. Cue the Debbie Downer music.
The researchers hypothesized that "bullying" is a trait that's been passed on for generations—or in the words of Darwin, "naturally selected." They reasoned that, often, the physical and personality traits that make bullies who they are—bigger, faster, stronger, manipulative, egotistical—are advantageous for survival and gaining sexual advantages. And in our society, those same attributes tend to make people more popular.
To test their theory, the researchers studied 135 adolescents, ages 13 to 16, from a secondary school in Canada. The students were asked to fill out questionnaires that measured whether they were a bully, a victim, a bully/victim, or a bystander. Questions included phrases like "I was hit, kicked or shoved," and could be answered on a scale of never to several times a week.
The students were also measured for self-esteem, depression, and social status.
Eleven percent of the students were identified as bullies, eight percent were victims, eight percent were bully/victims (i.e. students who experience both), and 73 percent were bystanders. As for the gender breakdown, more men than women were bullies (73 percent versus 27 percent, respectively).
As for their mental health? While it might be nice to imagine that the guy shoving you against your locker has no real friends, or is secretly sad about life—this study (which, admittedly, was quite small) showed the opposite.
Bullies had the lowest levels of depression, highest self-esteem, and highest social status, with victims fairing the second worst and bystanders fairing second best. This chart sums it up.
"These findings suggest that being a bully promotes better mental health, whether it is through the bullying behaviors themselves, or as a corollary of being a bully (i.e., being placed higher in the social rank)," write the authors in the study. "The results suggest that bullies, particularly in relation to bully/victims, gain specific benefits from their aggression and help provide evidence that bullying fulfills the advantageous variation component of natural selection."
The researchers then point out that bullies also had better sexual access—you know, because they're more popular.
"Bullies gain a sexual advantage from wielding a high social status. This is because social status is a highly desirable attribute, which is an indirect indicator of one’s resources," the researchers explain in the study. "Past scholars argue that bullies purposely dominate over others to gain better social status for the purpose of gaining better sexual access."
So what does this mean? You know, besides that fact that hope for humanity is lost?
Well, bear in mind that the sample size was limited—the researchers studied one group of kids from one Canadian school. But that being said, they believe their findings are valuable because they might inform how we deal with bullying, a perennial problem both in real life and online.
Essentially, we shouldn't always assume there's a root cause for a person's bullying, or that a bully is acting out from some sort of maladjustment. The truth is, he or she might simply recognize the advantageous results of his or her behavior.
We also shouldn't take the approach that bullies' behavior can't be changed—people who work with kids might consider helping young bullies understand that just because you can do something (exert your power over someone else), that doesn't mean you should. There's a lot to be said for teaching kindness.
The authors suggest that adults might help bullies find ways to keep their social status and prowess through other means—like playing sports or joining teams that make them cool—without hurting other people. Another strategy might be to make bullying less desirable among their peer group, essentially taking away its power: "One way to deter bullying would be to unsettle the balance by greatly increasing the likelihood of peer rejection for bullying behavior."
The authors' final suggestion is to create an open sense of belonging, so that students feel connected to each other—as if they're on the same team—like that song from High School Musical.
"Creating places where students can form bonds and help one another provides a practical avenue of managing the negative implications of bullying by offering a place where students can confide in others and create peer groups so individuals do not appear to be 'easy targets," they write.
Everybody now, We're all in this together—and it shows, when we stand, hand in hand—make our dreams come true!
Taryn Hillin is Fusion's love and sex writer, with a large focus on the science of relationships. She also loves dogs, Bourbon barrel-aged beers and popcorn — not necessarily in that order.