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Why We Bully: An Evolutionary Perspective

why we bullyLast week I highlighted that bullying can continue well into adulthood. Whether in the bathroom of a local middle school or in the board room, bullying continues to permeate our social lives, making people feel like victims, helpless bystanders and powerful oppressors.

As a society, we all agree this is morally wrong, yet one can find instances of bullying every day.

Recently, Forbes shared author Christopher Boehm, PhD’s thoughts on bullying as an evolutionary phenomenon gone askew. Dr. Boehm states that bullying behavior is found many species and is adaptive, “because you get better food or mating opportunities… In primates, studies have shown that the top bullies have more offspring and therefore their genes proliferate.”

Our moral backbone develops in spite of the existence of this primal drive.

Dr. Boehm (who wrote the book, Moral Origins) shares how these primal drives often collide with our developed mind, as in the case of the school bus monitor being bullied by a number of middle school students.

…because human behavior is, after all, complicated and imperfect. Boehm points out that the example of the school bus monitor is one of group behavior, which, he argues, comes from an ancient urge to bring down amoral or deviant individuals, or, unfortunately, almost anyone who’s different… he says, “…. Chimpanzees occasionally gang up against a high ranking individual and cut him down to size somewhat, but humans developed morality and in doing so we learned to gang up not just against our superiors but against individuals who the feel are so deviant that they deserve to be treated as outsiders.”

Does this excuse the children’s behavior? Certainly not, but it does shed a tiny glimmer of light into the psychology of bullying.

But how do we account for adult bullying? Adults, unlike the children on the bus, have fully developed higher brains (pre-frontal cortex to be exact) that is responsible for our moral judgment, impulse control, and other executive functioning. Yet workplace bullying is becoming an ever growing problem.*

As I thought about the article in Forbes and Dr. Boehm’s points, I had to wonder if our deep desires for success and power, and our ambition and desire to thrive override our pre-frontal cortex, allowing the primal brain to take over. When I’ve discussed workplace conflicts with clients, oftentimes they have become more aware of being the object of envy by peers at work or being a threat to young supervisor’s power.

A ‘survival of the fittest’ mentality kicks in and competent, intelligent adults are left feeling despondent, anxious and isolated at work.

While this may not be a fully formed dissertation on the psychology of bullying, it gives us more to understanding of why it exists. By understanding why/how/when something happens, we can become conscious of it. In turn, when bullying behavior is starting to manifest in one’s life, we are better able to identify it and thoughtfully respond to it.

*Or we are starting to recognize it as a problem

Angry boy photo available from Shutterstock

Why We Bully: An Evolutionary Perspective

Katherine Prudente, LCAT, RDT

Katherine Prudente, LCAT, RDT is a licensed creative arts therapist specializing in drama therapy. She currently is a counselor with the Freedom Institute Independent School Program providing psycho-educational workshops in over 50 Independent Schools in the metropolitan New York City area. Student workshop topics include: substance abuse prevention, digital citizenship and cyberbullying prevention, relational aggression, stress management and sexual decision making/healthy relationships. In addition to student workshops, Katherine also facilitates faculty and parent workshops regarding substance abuse prevention and digital citizenship/cyberbullying prevention. Katherine maintains a private practice in New York City working with adolescents and adults.

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APA Reference
Prudente, K. (2012). Why We Bully: An Evolutionary Perspective. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 20, 2019, from


Last updated: 11 Jul 2012
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