Bullying – A Rational Choice

It seems like everybody is worried about bullying. The media is replete with stories about bullying and the negative effects it has on its victims — effects that include anxiety and decreased self-worth. It has been suggested that victimization by bullies has led to self-harm, suicide and even school shootings. Often, bullying is treated as pathological. The bully has a disease that needs to be cured. According to this view, the way to stop bullying is to discover the cause of the bully’s “sickness” and then eliminate this cause. Perhaps this is the wrong approach.

Research shows that most bullies — excluding those who have not previously been victims of bullying themselves — do not suffer from mental or emotional problems. They do not have problems with experiencing empathy or with theory of mind. Maybe bullies are not victims of a disorder. Bullies might simply be behaving rationally. They have weighed the costs and benefits of bullying and have determined that the rewards outweigh the risks.

What are the benefits of bullying?

Bullying is a method of maintaining dominance within a social group, and through this dominance, gaining access to material and social resources — whether by overt threat (such as the promise of physical retribution if one does not do what the bully wants) or via influence (for example, gossip or social exclusion). Bullies who bully by the use — or threat — of physical violence gain a reputation for strength. This decreases the likelihood that the bully will become a victim of aggression. Teenage boys who are believed to be tough are less likely to become victims. Through bullying, an individual can gain allies who will come to his or her aid in future conflicts, thus reducing the risk of engaging in, or instigating, such conflicts.

Bullying may provide health advantages. Social dominance is associated with lowered stress levels and therefore, a lower risk of suffering from medical conditions that are caused or aggravated by stress. Access to material resources is associated with improved health and increased longevity. Bullies who have never been victims themselves tend to have less frequent coughs, colds and sore throats than victims. Teenage bullies who have never been victims tend to report better mental health than other teenagers do. Bullying can increase sexual opportunities for the bully.

By displaying their physical strength, by dominating other males and by obtaining access to material resources, male bullies can make themselves more attractive to females. Female bullies, on the other hand, can eliminate sexual competition from other females through insults (often about physical appearance), through malicious gossip (frequently about alleged promiscuity) and through social exclusion. In fact, teenage girls who consider themselves attractive are more likely to be victims of social bullying in than teenage girls who don’t — a sign that social bullying can be used as a means of eliminating same-sex competition.

Male bullying behavior is usually more overt than female bullying behavior. Females tend to be more risk-averse than males. Female bullying behavior is less easy to recognize, and therefore, to punish, than male bullying behavior. This gender difference adds weight to the hypothesis that bullying is a choice based on comparison of potential risk and reward.

A Natural Phenomenon

While methods of bullying may change — cyber-bullying came into existence only recently, with the advent of social media — bullying has existed throughout human history, in all parts of the world, and bullies have always obtained similar benefits. Significant levels of bullying have been found in many hunter-gatherer societies. There are records of bullying in Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, Medieval Europe, Medieval China and Renaissance Europe. Among the Utku Eskimos and the Iks of East Africa, bullying has increased in times of extreme scarcity — evidence that bullying is a tried and true method of resource acquisition.

Twin studies show that there are genetic factors associated with bullying. This indicates that bullying has been influenced by evolution. Bullying exists in social animals other than humans — for example, in hyenas and African wild dogs. It is common in many species of non-human primates. Among chimpanzees, females bully other females to control access to food. Males bully other males to control access to mates.

Bullying Encourages Conformity

As bullying has existed for so long, in so many different social species, there is a good chance that it provides some social benefit. In fact, bullying is a means of maintaining social cohesion and conformity to social norms. While conformity has negative connotations in the 21st century western world (consistent with humanistic philosophies that venerate the individual), conformity might once have been essential for survival. When survival depends on working together to hunt, to avoid predators and to fend off attackers, and is predicated on short-term rather than long-term goals, independent thinking and nonconformity can be a disadvantage. It may be better to obey authority and rely on group, rather than individual, wisdom.

Our bodies even produce a hormone — oxytocin — that encourages conformity and identification with a particular social group. Studies have shown that being given oxytocin increases the likelihood that subjects will cooperate with members of an ingroup, agree with them and sacrifice for them, and decreases the likelihood that they will behave in these ways toward members of an outgroup. Thus, oxytocin “programs” us to cooperate with the members of our group and to be antagonistic toward those we deem outsiders – behaviors that facilitate bullying.

Bullying encourages group conformity by creating an alliance between the bully and bystanders. Bullies benefit from such alliances because they allow the bullies to control bystander behavior. Bystanders benefit because they avoid pain and humiliation — they avoid becoming victims.

When questioned, young people usually say that bullying is wrong. However, observational studies show that witnesses to bullying incidents in schools rarely intervene. These students seem to be aware that the risks of speaking out against bullying outweigh the benefits. Studies show that school anti-bullying programs that involve working with peers actually increase levels of victimization.

Bullies create norms by dictating which behaviors are acceptable and which are not. A bully who calls a woman a “slut”, for example, is announcing that sexual confidence in women is unacceptable. Those who do not conform to the bully’s norms become scapegoats. The creation of scapegoats increases group cohesion.

Victims of bullying tend to be those who stand out from the crowd — whether in a positive or a negative way. Victims are often those who are considered very attractive, are extremely intelligent or have exceptional skills — as well as those who suffer from disabilities. Thus, bullies reinforce the idea that it is better to fit in than to be different — no matter what the difference is.

Dealing with Bullying Today

While bullying is a behavior that has evolved over a long time and has been an aid to survival in the past, it no longer serves that role. In fact, contemporary society benefits when people who are different, and who see things differently than the majority of their peers do, are given the freedom to express themselves without fear of retaliation.

In addition, bullying violates contemporary moral systems that declare that it is wrong to harm others. Therefore, it is important to discourage bullying, despite the fact that it is a “natural” behavior. (Rape is also a natural behavior, found in non-human great apes, yet our moral systems declare that we must not tolerate it.)

To discourage bullying, society must ensure that the risk of punishment from bullying outweighs the potential rewards. Instead of treating bullies as sufferers of a disorder, society should treat bullies as rational human beings who understand the consequences of their actions — and who will not engage in a behavior if the risk of doing so is too great.

By becoming more adept at recognizing all forms of bullying, including indirect social bullying, people in authority can increase the likelihood that bullying will be punished and that, therefore, people will be less likely to choose to bully. Those in authority should pay particular attention to the fact that social bullies will be adept at social control (bullying is positively correlated with leadership, empathy and theory of mind ability) and may be able to influence the authority figures themselves. Adult bullies, including bullies in the workplace, can be particularly difficult to deal with because they will have spent many years perfecting techniques for bullying without detection.

While bullying should be punished, altruistic behavior should be rewarded. Those who hold dominant positions among their peers should be rewarded for coming to the defense of victims. Potential bullies should be taught that they will benefit more from helping others than from causing harm, and that they can use displays of altruistic behavior as opportunities to show off their strengths. Bystanders who speak out against bullying or go out of their way to help victims should be protected from retaliation and should be rewarded for their courage.

Most importantly, however, efforts to combat bullying need to go beyond looking at bullying as a problem of individuals and focus on how society, as a whole, encourages bullying behavior. As long as young people constantly witness business-people achieving financial success through manipulation, greed and lack of compassion, and as long as they constantly see politicians retaining political power while denying help to the weak and disadvantaged, it is difficult to believe that anti-bullying programs will have a lasting effect. A few hours a week in an intervention program is not enough to counteract the effects of living 24 hours a day in a bullying culture, where all around them young people can see the benefits of bullying.


Brandt, A. et. al. (2012) School bullying hurts: evidence of psychological and academic challenges among students with bullying histories. Undergraduate Research Journal for the Human Sciences, 11(1).

Juvonen, J. & Galván, A. (2009). Bullying as a means to foster compliance. In Harris, M.J. (Ed.), Bullying, Rejection and Peer Victimization, a Social Cognitive Neuroscience Perspective (pp. 299-318), New York: Soringer Publishing Company LLC.

Stallen M, De Dreu CK, Shalvi S, Smidts A, & Sanfey AG (2012). The herding hormone: oxytocin stimulates in-group conformity. Psychological science, 23 (11), 1288-92 PMID: 22991128

Volk AA, Camilleri JA, Dane AV, & Marini ZA (2012). Is adolescent bullying an evolutionary adaptation? Aggressive behavior, 38 (3), 222-38 PMID: 22331629

Image via Helder Almeida / Shutterstock.

Marcia Malory, BA

Marcia Malory, BA, is a science writer who enjoys writing about the evolution of consciousness and intelligence. She writes for a number of science websites. With a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science, focusing on sociology and philosophy, she is especially interested in how scientific discoveries influence society and how culture influences the dissemination of scientific knowledge.
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