Blog dedicated primarily to randomly selected news items; comments reflecting personal perceptions

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Survival of the Behavioral Brutish?

"Humans tend to try to establish a rank hierarchy. When you're in high school, it's a very limited arena in which you can establish your rank, and climbing the social ladder to be on top is one of the main ways."
"Bullying is a tool you can use to get there."
Jennifer Wong, professor of criminology, Simon Fraser University, British Columbia
Fotolia   A just-published Canadian study has added heft to a provocative new theory about bullying: that the behavior is literally in the genes, an inherited trait that actually helps build social rank and sex appeal.
"The average bully isn't particularly sadistic or even deeply argumentative. What they really are is people driven for status."
Dr. Tony Volk, psychologist, Brock University, St.Catharines, Ontario

"This is kind of stepping backward and that's concerning. I don't want parents who have a child who is considered a bully to think, 'Well, it's something they're born with and there's nothing we can do to adjust their behaviour."
Rob Frenette, advocacy and support group, Bullying Canada

Dr. Wong, who led a study whose results were recently published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, speaks of her conviction based on the study results that people are hard-wired from birth to be bullies; their genetic inheritance doesn't just predispose them to become bullies, but steers them directly toward their manifest destiny as bullies.

And, as bullies their aggressiveness is generally rewarded by the achievement of higher social or business standing because they gain respect and admiration on the part of those who seek to emulate them or submit to their 'superior qualities' of assertiveness.

Dr. Wong and student Jun-Bin Koh surveyed 135 Vancouver area teens for their study, submitting them to a questionnaire posing queries such as how often they were "hit, kicked or shoved", ultimately dividing the students into categories of 'bully', 'bystander', 'victim', or 'victim-bully' based on parsing their responses. Roughly 11 percent of those in the group were slotted into the bully category.

And that 11 percent scored highest on issues of self-esteem and social status, while scoring lowest on depression, according to the published paper. Dr. Wong feels that bullies should have their aggressive impulses 're-directed' since punishing them doesn't work. Re-direction lies in persuading them to take up challenging assignments that others without their aggressive streak would find difficult to pursue; 'taking charge' type of assignments to appease their belligerence.

Tony Volk, a psychologist in St. Catharines, Ontario at Brock University helped to design the genetic theory of bullying. He was involved in a study of a pilot project at a school in Arizona which conceived of steering students identified as bullies into 'jobs' considered to be of a  high-status variety in an effort to steer their aggression in a a direction less socially harmful to others. The study resulted in a dramatic fall of bullying events at the school.

Fotolia   A pilot project at an Arizona school sought to steer students identified as bullies into high-status “jobs” — like being the school’s front-door greeters — to focus their aggression on something less harmful.

For those who advocate and support an enterprise attempting to deal with bullying like Rob Frenette, whose personal experience of being bullied as a person coping with cerebral palsy and who was victimized by bullies during his school years -- from receiving death threats to being pushed down stairs and even having the back of his neck burned by girls on a school bus -- the matter is a complex one.

Charles Benn / Handout
Charles Benn / Handout Rob Frenette, co-founder of the group Bullying Canada, rejects the notion that bullying is an inherited, genetic trait aimed at gaining social status and sexual attractiveness. He worries that new research promoting that idea could have a negative impact.

At the support group Bullying Canada which he helped found, from his perspective the problem of bullying runs wide and deep within society. Their 24/7 support line took 312,000 calls and received 86,000 emails seeking help for victims of bullying and their families in a year. It is his considered opinion that existing programs to overcome bullying help to decrease bullying.

Dr. Volk doesn't concur that bullies are "hard-wired", but that a genetic predisposition exists channelling them toward bullying. But which could be overcome by environmental alterations or through providing ways by which aggression can be directed toward more positive outcomes. "These kids aren't stupid, they know what they're doing, they're doing it for a reason. We're not saying give up on punishment necessarily, but what about the carrot?" he asks.

Existing evidence points to those considered to be "pure" bullies accounting for 80 to 90 percent of bullying, are more socially adept, become more popular and yet their bullying tactics are so covertly skilled they remain undetected. According to the evolutionary psychology theory holding that bullying is an adaptive behaviour, they are thus endowed with a genetic edge permitting to gain better opportunities and succeed in any enterprise they encounter.

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