Biological Explanations for Bullying

What are the main causes of bullying? Are bullies born bullies? Or does their environment shape their behaviour? Some may argue that bullying is an adaptive trait for both the perpetrators and the victims. Many psychologists have tried to identify the biological reasons for bullying behaviour. So, what are the biological explanations for bullying? Here, we will explore the various biological theories exploring the origins of bullying behaviours. 

Biological Explanations for Bullying Biological Explanations for Bullying

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Table of contents
    • First, we will look at the main causes of bullying and give a definition.
    • Next, we will discuss biological reasons for bullying.
    • Then we will examine genetic and environmental influences on different forms of bullying, with an evaluation of research.
    • Finally, we will discuss evolutionary explanations for bullying behaviour, plus an evaluation of the relevant research.

    Biological Explanations for Bullying, man surrounded by pointing fingers, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Bullying is harm-directed behaviour towards someone.

    Main Causes of Bullying

    According to Swearer and Hymel (2015), bullying is interpersonal, aggressive behaviour that demonstrates different relationship patterns. There can be various causes for such behaviours, ranging from genetics to psychological causes, such as cognitive biases and individual differences. There are many theories on the different causes of bullying and the factors that can influence bullying, such as environmental, psychological and biological explanations.

    Bullying can be defined as aggressive behaviour to harm an individual (through various means), misusing power differential.

    Bullying is a complicated social phenomenon. It targets individuals beyond age, race and boundaries meant to belittle and intimidate them. It can also be considered a psychosocial factor, as it causes mental and physical harm to an individual.

    Biological Reasons for Bullying

    Although some causes of bullying may interact or overlap, there are specific causes that are heavily researched. Some of the biological reasons for bullying include:

    • Genetic influences leading to bullying behaviour.
    • Evolved gender differences.
    • Hormones that influence behaviour and even aggression.

    The nature vs nurture debate suggests that a mix of our genetics and the environment we have grown up in influences our behaviour.

    Genetic and Environmental Influences on Different Forms of Bullying

    Are there biological reasons for bullying? Can our genes be the ones to blame? Scientists believe there is a connection between genetics and a person becoming a bully or being bullied. Based on extensive literature, researchers imply that our genetics play a vital role in influencing our psychological traits. This influence can manifest in our behaviour, determining if we become bullies or victims of bullying.

    Consider the following examples:

    According to Ball et al. (2008), genes are the most critical factor in determining if a child will become a bully or a victim. They conducted a study on 2,116 twins aged 9–10 years old.

    The research revealed genetic influences explained 73% of children’s risk of being a victim and 61% of their risk of being a bully. While the study insists victimisation is not a personality trait inherent in these children, genetic factors play a significant role in how likely a child is to be victimised in bullying. There is also a scope of intervention, a degree of personal control and the ability to educate to reduce bullying risks.

    Biological Explanations for Bullying, children fighting over books in a library, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Some research suggests genes play an important role in determining who becomes a bully or victim.

    Thalia et al. (1999) researched Swedish and British twins examining genetic and environmental influences as a determinant of bullying behaviour. Researchers studied children and adolescents with aggressive and non-aggressive anti-social behaviour. They took 1022 Swedish twins (one-third being identical twins) and 501 British twins (half identical twins) as samples.

    The study highlighted that aggressive behaviour could be genetically inherited. However, our environment heavily influences non-aggressive anti-social behaviour.

    Girls get this behaviour through genetics compared to boys, who learn non-aggressive behaviour from the social environment.

    Peer pressure influences both genders. However, its effects may be different for each member of twins.

    Depression may link with increased aggression (Swearer et al., 2015), translating to bullying behaviour.

    According to Swearer et al. (2015), the 5-HTTLPR gene mediates stress and depression. Serotonin regulates neurotransmitters linked to depression, aggression, impulsivity, stress and anxiety responses.

    Sugden et al. (2010) investigated the relationship between bullying victimisation, emotional problems, and variation in moderation by the serotonin transporter gene (5-HTT). They analysed 2,232 British children and found that bullying victimisation leads to the eventual development of emotional problems, and genetic variation in the 5-HTTLPR gene moderates this process.

    Children who were bullied with specific gene variations (SS) were at greater risk of developing emotional issues by the age of 12 than other children. They suggested that 5-HTTLPR moderates the risk of developing emotional issues after experiencing stressful events such as bullying.

    This research can help us understand the link between the 5-HTT gene and aggression that may lead to children becoming bullies or victims of bullying.

    Evaluation of Genetic and Environmental Explanations for Bullying

    The research by Thalia et al. (1999) demonstrates that environmental factors, such as peer pressure and the social environment, play an essential role in developing bullying behaviours. It is not solely a genetic predisposition to bullying.

    However, the research ignores the involvement of hormones between both genders that may also be related to bullying behaviour.

    According to some studies, males have high testosterone levels, which may make them more prone to aggressive behaviour (more likely to be bullies).

    However, this may suggest a strong link between bullying and aggression compared to genes and bullying.

    Popma et al. (2007) found that teenagers in a delinquency programme had high levels of cortisol that matched with aggression scores from self-reports, suggesting that cortisol is another hormone that affects aggression levels, especially in adolescent males.

    Overall, the research evidence mentioned above seems correlational, as it suggests only an indirect link between genes and bullying, such as in Swearer et al. (2015). It explains the genetic predisposition to developing bullying behaviour but not much else beyond that.

    Further research is needed to fully establish the interaction between a person’s genetics and their vulnerability to bullying.

    Using a genetic argument has issues with reductionism, ignoring all other factors. Yet, most areas of research we discussed identified an environmental factor. As we mentioned above, the role of hormones may affect the development of bullying behaviours, which most research discussed tends to ignore.

    Biological Explanations for Bullying, hand with medical glove filling test tubes, StudySmarterFig. 3 - There may be an indirect link between bullying and genetics.

    What would be the evolutionary explanations for bullying behaviour? Most evolutionary theories prioritise resource collection and maintenance, survival, and successful reproduction. Males have higher sexual jealousy, using anti-cuckoldry manners as male retention strategies.

    Cuckoldry is when a married male raises a child who may not be his own due to the female partner cheating.

    To rule out such a situation, a male adapts retention strategies that reduce the chance of cuckoldry from their partner. These male retention strategies may also include bullying behaviour.

    Wilson and Daly (1998) established a link between aggression and male retention strategies. They suggested males use aggression to implement these strategies. Men using direct guarding strategies were almost twice as likely to be violent towards their female partners. They divided male retention strategies into two categories:

    1. Direct guarding – pressing to be aware of who is meeting with their partner or where the partner is.
    2. Negative inducements using threats to reduce the likelihood of cheating behaviours.

    Shackleford et al. (2005) studied 107 married couples analysing the link between male retention strategies and aggression.

    • Males completed the male retention inventory.
    • Wives completed the spouse influence report.

    The results showed that aggression was used more in partner relationships maintaining the male retention strategies.

    The relational effects of bullying include:

    • Loneliness
    • Social anxiety
    • Depression
    • Disturbed attitude towards studies etc.

    Bullying may correlate with an evolutionary advantage. For instance, from an evolutionary perspective, men who bully other men have more chances to choose as many females to mate with. It gives them the advantage to pass their genes to as many children as they want over other males.

    Comparatively, females may practice bullying within relationships to maintain loyalty.

    Volk et al. (2015) investigated 334 adolescents and 144 university students. They found bullying (but not victimisation) would predict dating behaviour, an evolutionary advantage if this results in successful mating opportunities.

    According to this study, bullying behaviour increases sexual opportunities (accounting for age, sex, and attractiveness).

    Evaluation of Evolutionary Explanations for Bullying

    Research evidence supports bullying behaviour as having an evolutionary advantage. As we can see in Volk et al. (2015), bullying behaviour is an adaptive behaviour that increases the likelihood of sexual opportunities in terms of attractiveness, age, sex etc.

    It provides a new understanding of bullying behaviour compared to a genetic explanation that only blames the parent’s genes. This research can help re-evaluate our anti-bullying programs in terms of their success.

    However, there might be a slight difference between the hormones and evolutionary reasons for bullying, as Hansen et al. (2006) reported when studying workplace bullying. He suggested that bullied participants, compared to others, had less support from peers and colleagues and less cortisol hormone in their saliva.

    Biological Explanations for Bullying - Key takeaways

    • Swearer & Hymel (2015) suggested bullying is understood to be aggressive interpersonal behaviour that shows different patterns in relationships.
    • Biological explanations for bullying highlight the role genes, evolution, and hormones play in bullying behaviours.
    • Ball et al. (2008) found that 61% of the children seemed to be at risk of becoming a bully, with 73% at risk of becoming a victim of bullying, as explained by genetic influence.
    • Thalia et al. (1999) researched Swedish and British twins explaining genetic and environmental influence as a determinant of bullying behaviour. Swearer et al. (2015) found that variations in the 5-HTTLPR gene can affect how vulnerable children become to bullies or victims of bullying.
    • The evolutionary explanation of bullying suggests a male adapts retention strategies that reduce the chance of cuckoldry from their partner.
    Biological Explanations for Bullying Biological Explanations for Bullying
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Biological Explanations for Bullying

    Is bullying a psychosocial factor?

    Psychosocial factors are elements that cause mental and physical harm to an individual. Therefore, bullying can be considered a psychosocial factor.

    Is bullying a social phenomenon?

    Bullying is a complicated social phenomenon that is harm directed behaviour towards someone. It targets individuals beyond age, race and boundaries meant to belittle and intimidate them.

    What is bullying a theoretical definition?

    Bullying can be defined as aggressive behaviour to harm an individual (through various means) misusing power differential.

    What are the effects of relational bullying? 

    The relational effects of bullying include:

    • Loneliness
    • Social anxiety
    • Depression
    • Disturbed attitude towards studies etc.

    What is the abstract of bullying?

     Bullying is the concept of directing harmful behaviour towards someone.

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