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Do Bullies Have Better Self-Esteem? Evolutionary Psychologists Say Yes (But Their Study Says No)

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Sorta transcript:

A new study claims to show that bullying is not a learned behavior. Evolutionary psychologists from Simon Frasier University say they’ve found evidence that it’s an adaptive trait: that bullies have better mental health, which leads to more sex, which leads to babies, who are also bullies. Baby Bullies, the hot new reality show debuting this fall on TLC!

The idea that bullies are literally born that way could have a tremendous impact on how we treat the serious problem of adolescent bullying, it there were any evidence it were true. But there isn’t. Not even in this study.

To the researchers’ credit, they admit their sample size is small enough that this should only be a preliminary study, but let’s be exact: they looked at 15 bullies, 10 victims, and 11 bully/victims who had been both bullied and been bullied. There were 97 kids who they called “bystanders” because they had neither bullied nor been victims. All the kids were 13 to 16 years old, and all of them were in one suburban Canadian middle school.

Each kid filled out a survey, which the researchers used to determine their levels of depression, self esteem, social status, and social anxiety. And here’s the crazy part: the researchers found there was no statistically significant difference on any of those four characteristics between bullies and “bystanders,” or between bullies and victims.

So if bullies don’t have better mental health than everyone else, guess what that means? This study absolutely, positively does not show that bullies evolved because they have better mental health.

That seems obvious, and yet I’m still seeing this study in the media claiming to show the opposite. That’s because the researchers did find a small but statistically significant difference between bullies and bully/victims. So basically, they split bullies up into two groups: one who had never been bullied before, and one who had. They found that bullies who had been bullied were worse off than bullies who hadn’t been bullied.

Okay, no shit?

Even then, though, they didn’t show cause and effect. So they have no way to say whether the bully/victims have lower self-esteem because they had been bullied, or if they were bullied because they have lower self-esteem.

The researchers also didn’t examine anyone’s DNA or even talk to their parents, so even if their results did show what the headlines are claiming, they still couldn’t support their stated hypothesis that “adolescent bullying is an adaptive behavior derived from evolution.”

So to recap, a study that claims to show evidence that bullying is an adaptive trait because bullies have better mental health and social status actually showed that bullies are about the same as everyone else, and it didn’t even come close to saying anything about human evolution.

Why this was even published, let alone covered in the media, is absolutely baffling to me. To help any other outlets that want to cover this piece, I’ve helpfully rewritten the abstract to be less misleading: In this study, researchers identify 11 kids in a suburban Canadian middle school who probably need help with their depression. The end.

Bonus gif:

if it had any basis in reality. which it doesn't.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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4 Comments

  1. July 31, 2015 at 7:19 pm —

    Weak study, bad science journalism, and an evolutionary psychology just-so story–it’s a trifecta!

    PS: I loved the Baby Bullies joke.

    • August 1, 2015 at 5:42 pm —

      I would say the entire self-esteem movement is bad science, though. I mean, anyone who says narcissists suffer from a lack of self-esteem is…pretty weird.

      But then again, you know the usual, blah blah blah, Ayn Rand’s boytoy.

      • August 1, 2015 at 6:13 pm —

        There is a huge amount of pseudoscience in the psychological field in general. The popular self-esteem movement is only the tip of the iceberg. It really goes all the way back to Freud. Penis envy indeed! Personally, I’m perfectly fine without a penis, thank you very much.

  2. July 31, 2015 at 11:16 pm —

    Rebecca, you are absolutely killing it lately!

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