Bullies Bully Because They Can [Study]

If you grew up with the unseen but very painful emotional scars of seemingly persistent, merciless, viscous abuse inflicted upon by bullies, you have my sympathy. However, I will note that girls, especially the entitled Queen Bees who calculatingly spread scathingly hateful gossip, are way more cutthroat than boys.

You feel alone, unfairly singled out and culled from the herd of peers like a lame gazelle. You feel powerless and frustrated, wishing daily that the bullies would tire and move on. But they don’t. You ask for parents and teachers to intercede, and instead the situation only seems to worsen. You’re given contradictory advice to protect yourself, but know the school will suspend you for simply doing just that. You’re taunted for being too tall, too short, too thin, too fat, something with the ears, eyes, nose, teeth, hair color; anything to get a rise. You are in awe of how someone so nasty and cruel can be so popular. Their friends join in on the misery, making it even more overwhelming.

Little punishment is imposed upon the tormentors, as they laugh off the hollow threats of detention or calls to parents made by authority figures. Often their parents are just grown up versions of their kids, bullies too, who adore their angelically innocent looking offspring. Or they don’t want to believe their precious child could possibly be a bully. The behavior is excused as normal, kids being kids, overlooking the psychopathy the victims see.

I grew up impoverished with a kind but passive mother figure who felt it best to teach her children not to stand up for themselves, but grit through and bear it like we seemingly did with everything else in our difficult young lives. I fought the urge to physically react regularly, as I didn’t want to be a burdensome troublemaker. Yet my gut burned with the knowledge the treatment I endured was unjust.

The level of restraint was incredible considering. Still my tormentors, typically a self-important vapid girl who unjustifiably held her spoiled self in a different echelon above everyone else, continued to provoke. All they wanted was a shy little girl, dressed in the same dirty ill-fitting clothes she’d worn the day before, to erupt into tears. Either produced out of anger or sadness, didn’t seem to matter which. Once achieved, the sinister smirk of satisfaction would curl at the corners of their lips.

We (siblings too) rose each day, praying for an illness worthy of a day off. We donned threadbare garments and faced a fresh circle of hell each day when heading off to school. Thinking back I wish I’d spent more of my time worrying over my grades than sickened with the anticipation of the torture. When people ask about my childhood, I describe it as “surviving it.” We had nothing, less than nothing, and the school kids spent many a day reminding us of that fact.

Many parents spin the same fairy tale in a desperate hope of explaining why bullies take delight in emotionally and physically muscling around others. It’s surmised they too must be unhappy in their own lives, suffering from some inadequacy or dissatisfaction. The lack of having a healthy outlet or having weak problem solving skills results in bullying others to boost themselves up. Having experienced the manipulation I don’t need a study to tell me the majority of bullies bully because they can. The act of aggressing themselves on others like alpha dogs results in boosting their social appeal, making them popular, and they like it. Also, they are rarely adequately punished.

Give an animal enough positive reinforcement for a negative act, and it will continue to repeat the behavior.

Researchers at the University of California-Davis, Robert Faris and Diane Felmlee, interviewed public school students in 19 North Carolina middle schools over a span of 4.5 years. They asked the students to name their friends and used the data to map friendships. They then asked who the bullies were and whom they picked on to map out the pathways of aggression. This process was replicated several times as the kids aged.

The result produced a glaring correlation between popularity and aggression. The more popular the middle and (as they aged into) high school students became, the more aggressive the behavior he or she displayed. Only one-third of the students engaged in any bullying: physical force, taunts or gossip-spreading. But those who gained popularity bullied more. Only when kids reached one of the two polarized social hierarchies, the very top or bottom two percent, did their behavior change; these kids were the least aggressive.

A study, conducted by researchers from the University of California, appeared to have similar results. Nearly 1,900 students in 99 classes at 11 Los Angeles middle schools contributed data. Surveys were conducted at different points during seventh and eighth grades. Participants were asked to identify the students considered the “coolest” or most popular. It was found later the majority of those named were bullies.

I don’t advocate violence as a solution to bullying, even though it seems it’s the only language they understand, and sometimes going to the cafeteria in a high school is akin to one in a prison – same rules apply: don’t make direct eye contact. Instead, I wish they could have felt as I had for just a moment and gained a little compassion. I wish they’d seen the same clothing on my back, day after day, not as an easy target to strike. I wish they’d seen past my glasses and crooked teeth, cystic acne, and my inability to buy lunch as signs perhaps my home life was already hellish, and didn’t need an extra daily cherry on top.

If nothing else, I bask in the less than ladylike satisfaction of schadenfreude when I hear about a childhood bully’s adulthood misfortune. As an adult I have learned late in life most bullies have way more bark than they do bite.

[Image via Shutterstock]

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