Thursday, October 3, 2013

Bullying: An Evolutionary Perspective

Sorry for the lull in blog posts. Something terrible and unexpected came up in the first week of August and I haven't really been able to relax until the past couple weeks. I'd rather not get into the details in a public forum but... enough with the apologies, on with the post. 

Last week I took an overnight trip back to New York City where I attended an event promoting Richard Dawkins's new memoir, An Appetite for Wonder.  Dawkins devotes a small portion of his book-- a few paragraphs at most-- to discussing the school bullying he witnessed as a boy. Fortunately, Dawkins himself was spared, but he indicates in his memoir that he is somewhat guilt-stricken for not stepping in when other children were bullied and that he has a difficult time reconciling this aspect of the boy that he was with the man that he became. Since Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist, he briefly speculates the evolutionary explanation as to why kids bully and also compares the bullies'-- and apathetic bystanders'-- state of mind to that of Nazis who tortured and killed their victims in the Holocaust. I found myself becoming a bit fixated on this insignificant aspect of the book because I, too, have wondered deeply about the evolutionary psychology behind bullying since I was sixteen years old. The interesting thing was that back then I had never even heard the term "evolutionary psychology." 

As are many kids with Asperger's Syndrome, I was bullied severely, in my case from 2nd grade (age eight) to the end of 9th grade (age fifteen). I entered 10th grade at a high school for which very few kids in my middle school (grades 7-9 in my district) were zoned. For the most part, since I had a "fresh start," I was not picked on. However, I was still lonely because I could not connect with anybody. As I often did when lonely, I retreated into myself and found myself philosophizing about the world around me and having intense internal monologues. As I watched a number of the silly and sometimes absurd social rituals performed by other kids in order to "fit in"-- such as wearing what's "in style," listening to the "cool" music, etc.-- I began to wonder if everything we do-- directly or indirectly-- is based on the instinct to reproduce and that bullying is a byproduct from that instinct. Perhaps, I thought, the "different" kid is seen as a threat to group survival. This idea came to full fruition in early 1998 at age seventeen. At the time I was naive enough to believe I had come up with a brilliant new idea. Somebody should have said, "This isn't exactly a new concept," and put the books of Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, and Judith Rich Harris in my hands. Nevertheless, since then I have formed a great deal of ideas about the evolutionary psychology behind bullying. 

Be forewarned: I'm not going to pretend to be an expert on evolution. The ideas I want to present are based on my observations, experiences, and what I have read, and if anybody more knowledgeable in this area wants to correct me, I invite you to do so. I recognize that I could be wrong about many of these ideas that I want to put forth.

First, let's look at the bullying I experienced. In elementary school, it was mostly childish name calling. I was told, "You're weird," and called names like "space cadet" and "alien" because, like many kids with Asperger's, I was often off in my own little world. Gym class was a nightmare. I was often ridiculed and humiliated for being bad at sports. For example, if the gym teacher made me goalie in a soccer game, my team groaned while the opposing team cheered. Harassment also delved into threats of physical harm. Once, at age ten, I was riding my bike when some boys ambushed me and chased me up the street. One shouted, "Let's kill her!" Part of me believed that these boys really wanted to kill me.

My situation got quantitatively worse in middle school. The name calling became more bitingly personal, and threatening phone calls and physical violence became an almost daily part of my life. Other kids sometimes told me that I was worthless, was a freak, and some even told me to go kill myself. In 8th grade, a girl ambushed me and pinned me to the wall, her hands on my throat while other kids watched and laughed from the opposite wall. I struggled but could not push the girl off. I actually found that I could not even call for help as I was not getting enough air. Fortunately, another girl intervened and stopped the assailant.  Later that day, the entire 8th grade knew about the incident and was having a good laugh over it. Life was at its worst in 9th grade. Every single day in ceramics class a group of girls threw giant balls of clay at me. When I told the teacher about what was happening, she imparted the fantastically ignorant advice to "just ignore it." 

So where does this tie in to evolutionary psychology? I have provided extreme examples of bullying in both verbal and physical forms in which there were invocations of death. Even when the bully is not taking it to that extreme, I think what it comes down to is that he or she wants the victim dead. Why? In our more primitive days, there were a finite amount of resources and the best chance for the group to survive was to cooperate. Part of cooperation involves conformity in order to minimize conflict. Additionally, people recognized each other as being part of their tribe based on similar appearances AND customs. The problem is, biological evolution did not "account for" technological evolution, which begat a world in which food was readily available and in which people from all over the world would encounter one another. I believe that we are still acting on the survival instincts to "filter out" the person deemed as a threat, the person who is "different." It is no wonder, then, that kids with Asperger's Syndrome experience some of the worst bullying. 

Another possible reason for being threatened by the "different" person is that behavior that is perceived as "odd" might be indicative of disease. Primatologist Jane Goodall once observed a polio-affected, partially paralyzed chimpanzee dragging himself back to the troop after a sojourn into the forest. The troop first reacted in fear to their former "friend" and then in anger assaulted and, possibly, tried to kill him. Eventually, Goodall intervened. The ill chimpanzee was subsequently tolerated in the troop, but was mostly shunned. 

Something else that I have observed, in my own experience and in working with kids, is that bullying is quantitatively worse in larger groups. When I attended a small private school in sixth grade, I found that people were much more accepting of me and my quirks. The same holds true at the overnight camp I went to which had a grand total of 150 kids. At a large summer camp (300 kids) that I worked at, however, I witnessed a great deal of bullying among the kids. And at my middle school with 1,000-1,100 kids? Forget it. For me that was the worst. If it is true that the size of the group is positively correlated with the amount of bullying (although the age of the kids is obviously a consideration), then why? Once again, let's look at our ancestors. They lived in tribal villages of roughly 150 people. Not only is a middle school of 1,000-1,100 students large, but perhaps it is perversely large. There will not be one, or two "tribes" (as in a private school or a summer camp) but several, simulating the tribal conflicts of our ancestors. The one not pulling his weight, so to speak, is a waste of resources for any tribe and must be destroyed!

There is also the issue of safety in numbers. One day I stormed out of my history class, in tears, because some of my former "friends" were picking one me, which they did nearly every day. A student teacher had been supervising the class while my history teacher stepped out. I encountered him in the hallway. He saw that I was in tears, shook his head, and said, "Every day with you it's the same thing. You can't handle your problems and you end up crying. Go to guidance." Because I was the only one getting picked on and because it was a group of my former "friends" and their friends picking on me, the implication was damning: several people against one. The "one" must be the problem. My ceramics teacher also advised me to go to the guidance office after a particularly horrible clay fight that ended with kids cheering as I left the room. Why weren't the bullies advised to go to guidance to get advice on how to handle their overwhelming compulsion to cause emotional and physical pain to the school "oddball"? Because there were enough of them, enough of them to normalize this absurd behavior. Even in the eyes of adults, I was the one who needed to be fixed, not they. I was the one not "contributing" to the tribe. Safety in numbers, too, would explain why bystanders don't step in and often are indifferent to the suffering of the victim: they don't want to be the odd one out and become victims themselves! Is it possible that natural selection favored those who lacked empathy towards "outsiders?"

Finally, I want to invoke the Asch Experiment, a study executed during the 1950s that tested individuals' motivation to conform to group consensus. Each subject was told that he was participating in an experiment about visual perception with seven other people. In actuality, he was placed in a room with seven actors, people who were aware what the experiment was really about. The participants were shown a reference card with a line on it, followed by a card with three lines of varying lengths. Participants were then asked to state which of the three lines matched in length the single line on the reference card. The group sat in a way that assured that the experimental "guinea pig" was the last to state which line he thought was the same length as the one on the reference card, that is, after everybody in the group had given his answer. In two trials, the actors were told to unanimously give the correct response, and in the third trial they were told to unanimously give the incorrect response. The first two trials were uneventful, with the participant feeling at ease as he gave the same correct answer as the actors. In the third trial the subject found himself in a dilemma and questioning whether the answer he was prepared to give was actually correct. Ultimately, the subject generally caved in to peer pressure and gave the same incorrect answer as the actors.

What is scary about the Asch experiment is this: The peer pressure in question was not overt. The actors weren't calling the subject names or even saying much of anything. But just the fact that they had a different answer was enough to pressure the subject to question his. In fact, years later the experiments were revisited in a slightly different format. Brain imaging studies indicated that the subjects did not change their answer out of fear of being the odd one out; rather, their actual perception changed. What do these experiments have to do with bullying? I fear that they have everything to do with it. As I look back on my own experiences, I recall in 7th grade that a good friend of mine stood up to the bullies for me. By 9th grade, however, she was also bullying me. One day she approached me and said, "Everybody wants to beat you up." I glared at her and, in an even tone, said, "Why?" And she said, "Because you're you." Peer pressure ultimately got the best of her. I don't think she independently decided she no longer liked me. I don't even think that she consciously decided to side with the bullies out of fear of becoming a victim. Rather, I think the groupthink involved literally altered her perception. I am not sure if the others said, "If you hang around Julie, we won't be your friends anymore." Even if they didn't, I suspect that her observation of their attitude towards me was pressure enough. Jodee Blanco's memoir Please Stop Laughing at Me relates several experiences of Blanco's former friends conforming to peer pressure and becoming bullies. Conformity helped our ancestors survive (at the expense of others' lives), but today we know better. We should, at any rate.

I want to end this blog post with a few more thoughts. School bullying is an issue I think about all the time: while running, while swimming laps, while lifting weights, while drawing, while writing, while watching TV, and while merging with reckless drivers onto I-95. For any parents reading this, telling your child to "just ignore it" is terrible advice. Also, keep in mind that some teachers might even say that to a kid who is physically bullied, as did my ceramics teacher. But think about it: if someone throws rocks at an adult while taking a walk, that is considered assault. But a kid experiencing something similar is supposed to IGNORE it? One problem is that many adults don't see bullying for what it is-- bullying. They don't know how painful words can be. They don't realize that pushing, throwing clay, or even attempted strangling are forms of physical assault. They often downplay the seriousness of the bullies' actions, calling it "teasing," "joking around," "kids being kids," a "rite of passage," and sometimes even comment that the victim is "bringing it on herself." Call it what you want. But to borrow a quote from one of my intellectual heroes, Dr. Jack Kevorkian (albeit from a very obviously different context), "But it doesn't bother me what you call it. I know what it is." Verbal and physical abuse are just that-- abuse. Both cause emotional pain, and research indicates that many of the same neural circuits for processing physical pain also process emotional pain. Science has done a great deal of good in helping us to understand how the human mind works, and I am glad that the brain imaging studies are there to concretely illustrate just how painful verbal abuse can be. Science is also helping us understand why bullying happens. Maybe next it will tell us how to eliminate it.


  1. I have suffered with aspergers my whole life. But I thought I was just a loser despite being intelligent ant talented. My problems were social. Throughout my life people have believed the worst of me, no matter how hard I tried to be a good guy. It was like I was a walking conspiracy theory, I was, in other's eyes, always up to something.. I was a snitch, a teachers pet, suck up, smart ass, know it all. It has hampered my working life and severely limited my circle of friends. However, the friends I do have are quite devoted, give you a kidney kind of friends.
    I did not know that I was an Aspergers sufferer until this summer after my 66th birthday. Knowing the truth does not make the hurt go away, but I now know that my good intentions were misunderstood for a reason. I'm not a bad person, just a clumsy and misunderstood person.

  2. Hi, I found your blog because Richard Dawkins posted the link on his twitter feed. How cool is that? keep up the great work!

  3. Great column, thanks for writing so personally and sharing your thoughts.

    One thing that you didnt discuss was the fact that bullying happens primarily among children. Children, though it is politically incorrect to say so, are generally cruel, selfish little monsters. But that makes sense, evolutionarily. A child is in to position to give away resources, try to be a care-taker, etc. From an evolutionary perspective, his only task to look out for #1 and he can gain more resources by killing the weak. The oldest/largest pelican chick will push the other chicks out of the nest to die. Its only as adults that we gain an evolutionary advantage by having empathy, altruism, etc. as we need to provide care for our offspring and help and defend others in our family and tribe.

    Children seem to get more cruel as they age because they become smarter and thus more able to personalize their insults and attacks. But when they become emotionally mature enough to be parents, they also lose the tendency to bully.

  4. I was literally the outsider in 3 of the 4 schools I attended and, what made me even more different, was that I was usually at the top of the class or thereabouts. So you can imagine the joy. The bitter problem I wrestled with was being told by the adults that it's wrong to fight back (even when I could) or that it's "bad" to defend myself physically from a christian point of view. Talking didn't help because the minds of the bullies were clouded. The mob didn't have an intellectual issue, it was a primitive animalistic thing. Another great personal fear was that I was afraid that if I fought back I would damage the bullies very badly, possibly kill some, and end up with legal issues. At least I learned the dangers of blind obedience.

  5. Well said. Insightful. Well written.

    May I also suggest the possibility that juvenile bullying is a (desperately sad) "training ground" for exploitative ways in a cut-throat adulthood. Perhaps all such hypothesis are valid to some extent. Clever experiments and simulations of behaviour might tease out these factors. Voices such as yours will lead to better understanding and awareness. Even if innate (in my opinion it surely is), it is only circumstance, and lack of civilising factors and wise adults that allow the behaviour to be triggered.

    I hope you're heading towards an academic career developing your insights, or are building a wider audience for your writing.

    Thanks for the intellectually stimulating (and harrowingly frank) piece.

    Best wishes.

    1. I'm beyond flattered that you would say this. However, I did my Bachelor's in animation and my Master's in library science.

  6. Yep. Same here. Bullying started when I was 4 years old. For some reason my parents thought I was so far above average that I could start school a year earlier than normal, and I was placed in a grade one class among 5 year old children, at an all boys school of the old British style (1950s, it was, in the colonies). The bullying was ferocious, and it did not relent until I was in my final two years of high school. By that time we were preparing for matriculation examinations and as I was clearly one of the high performers intellectually, a certain grudging respect from my peers resulted in an abatement of the bullying. I do not understand why I did not tell anyone. Perhaps I did and no one listened or took it seriously or showed any inclination or ability to help, so I stopped telling and the memory of having tried to tell faded. I cannot recall now, except to say I have no memory of ever telling my parents or any other authorities. I wonder why my mother never noticed, for I came home not infrequently with soiled trousers from literally shitting in my pants from fear and sometimes from the pain of physical assault. Why was there never - not ever even once - a question asked? Perhaps she, as I, had I unconsciously inherited the British stiff upper lip.

  7. I think you might be on to something here. Everything seems to match. Once we identify the possibly evolutionary cause of this behavior, we might actually know how to raise kids to not have the "appetite for bullying". (I was directed here by Richard Dawkins' tweet)

  8. Thank you so much for writing and sharing this. You have really clarified the "bystander syndrome" and while horrifying, it fits. I could never understand the apathy in face of even the worst abuses and why I never experienced it the way I observed others to. Now it finally makes sense - I was always one of the "others" and thus perhaps immune to the mind-numbing influence of groupthink. While as a child I was mostly powerless or too chickenshit to intervene, I was lucky to grow up to be a strong, healthy, and confident adult who can (and does) intervene when witness to bullying. I should make it a point to address the "silent bystanders" in future incidents and call them out on their inaction, hopefully shaking them out of their groupthink-induced apathy. After all, putting a stop to a single bullying incident only helps that one victim that one time. Bullying will continue to be a problem as long as the bystander tolerates it. So I call on all adult "others" reading this: use your gift of groupthink immunity to shake those around you out of its trance. Having just prevented a bullying incident will give you the authority and moral high ground to gain attention of the bystanders present. Perhaps the way to stop bullying is to apply widespread peer pressure aimed at making the groupthink apathy a group-inappropriate behavior.

  9. While I am not an evolutionist (sorry but it's just common sense to me that everything in nature must have been created) I do appreciate anything science may do to help tackle bullying. I used to get 'pestered' as I'd call it, kid's following me around in the playground knowing full well that I wanted to be left alone, and you're right, the teacher would say 'ignore it' sometimes. One teacher once said "it's not that bad." Well I'm sorry, as break time is limited to just 20 minutes (or however long) I do not want any of that precious time to myself wasted by other kids hassling me!

    1. Some people believe in a creator but also accept evolution.

  10. I want to profusely thank Richard Dawkins for linking to this post. I'm quite happy that he liked the post enough to link to it and am also happy that it got so many hits!

  11. Hello Eccentrics United!

    I was bullied since Kindergarten time until 10th grade but not as brutal or as often as you. Although it took its toll as well. I greatly appreciate your openness about your experiences.

    One thought: bullying serves to establish a clear hacking/pecking order in the social fabric. Adult life is permeated by hierarchies everywhere as well. Seems kids and teens use school as a training ground.

    Group size: the smaller group, the more even an odd individual can contribute to the group and the more likely is kinship. The larger the group, the more dispensible is an individual.

    I hope you're happier now.

    And by the way: R. Dawkins tweet redirected me here as well ; )

  12. I also think it's a cultural thing. I lived for a few years in Africa as odd as I am now and was not bullied, I was viewed as eccentric and had friends. I was only really bullied when I moved to Europe. I believe much of European culture from politics, through media (see Daily Mail) is just bullying and children are only learning from adults.

  13. Bulling is a seriour problem among teens, at first glance, it seems almost impossible that children can be so violent but in practice we see that they can be even more agressive than adults, follow if you've suffered from bullying as well