Even earliest humans bullied, says research

Psychologists say bullies’ behaviour could be caused largely by their upbringing. Are some people naturally nasty, or does nurture play a more significant role in explaining their behaviour?

Fitting in, destroying rivals, dealing with threats and maintaining a balance of power: some of human beings’ basic instincts have been cited as the causes of bullying. Evolutionary anthropologist Dr Hogan Sherrow has argued that bullying ‘is part of the human condition’, while evidence of bullying has been found in hunter-gatherer groups, a variety of post-industrial societies, and tribal cultures.

But in a new book, Irrelationship, three American doctors say bullies are responding to the inability of caregivers (including peers, friends, teachers and especially families) to make them feel safe. Humans, they say, engage in dysfunctional relationships when they wish to hide from intimacy. Their hypothesis provides the hope that bullies’ behaviour can be understood and changed.

Some researchers say that environmental factors have caused people to bully since the earliest days of the human race. Canadian psychologists have cited the urge to damage others’ reputations, saying that evolutionary competition, particularly for mates, caused some of our distant ancestors to intimidate, coerce or harm those they saw as successful or sexually attractive. Others have suggested that bullying was a way of maintaining order and ensuring nobody had too much power — helping to explain why those who feel threatened, for example by those they perceive as more intelligent than themselves, are more likely to bully.

Modern bullies — who have often been bullied themselves — are more likely than their classmates to suffer from low self-esteem, depression and behavioural problems in childhood, and poor mental health in later life. Charities have also stressed that peer pressure and attention-seeking may play a role in causing bullying.

But, in 2007, researchers in the US state of Virginia found that the bullying tendencies of identical twins were more similar than those of fraternal twins. Their findings suggested that genetics may play a significant role in determining whether someone is prone to bullying.

A little understanding?

Nobody is born a bully, say some; bullies are created by unpleasant experiences and the imperfections of others. This should be cause for optimism — if we can understand which environmental factors cause bullying, we can then work to eradicate this unpleasant phenomenon for good.

That’s excessively optimistic, respond others. The real reason for bullying is staring us in the face: some people are just more unpleasant than others. Stressing environmental reasons for bullying absolves individuals of responsibility for their actions. Instead we should be telling the bullies to be ashamed of themselves.

You Decide

  1. Would you be able to feel sympathetic towards someone who bullied you?
  2. Is bullying caused more by nature or nurture?


  1. Write down five questions which you would like to ask a bully and (if possible) the answers which you think they might give.
  2. Write a letter to the Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, outlining what you think would be the best way to stop people bullying.

Some People Say...

“Society needs to condemn a little more, and understand a little less.”

John Major

What do you think?

Q & A

What can I learn from this?
One crucial lesson is that very few people admit that they are bullies, or think of themselves as bullies. It is important to recognise that your behaviour could be upsetting others — or to know when your friends have engaged in bullying behaviour and to do what you can to prevent it.
I’ve been bullied. Can I take any comfort from this?
Yes — because it is unlikely that the bullying is really about you. Bullies are themselves very likely to be insecure and struggling with issues in their own lives, which they may have displaced onto you. This doesn’t mean the bullying should be easy to deal with — it is natural for you to feel hurt by it — but it may help you to a better understanding of what is happening.

Word Watch

Post-industrial societies
A study in the European Journal of Public Health in 2005 found evidence of bullying in all 28 North American and European societies it looked at. There has also been increasing concern about bullying in recent years in countries including Japan.
Tribal cultures
Colin Turnbull’s 1961 book The Forest People included evidence of bullying behaviour among some members of the Mbuti tribe in central Africa.
Bullied themselves
This has been true in some of the most extreme instances of bullying behaviour; several people who have carried out mass school shootings in America were bullied at school. According to research from the University of London’s Institute of Education, only 0.5% of primary school children are ‘true bullies’ — bullies who are not bullied themselves. The same study found that a total of 5% of eight to 11-year-olds were bullies.
Identical twins
Identical twins are born when a single egg (zygote) is fertilised before dividing in two, and share the same genes. Non-identical twins will have no more genetic similarities than two other siblings.

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