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Biological Explanations for Bullying

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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.

According to Swearer and Hymel (2015), bullying is interpersonal, aggressive behaviour that demonstrates different patterns in relationships. There can be various reasons for developing such behaviours, ranging from genetics to psychological causes, such as cognitive bias to individual differences.

Before delving into those, how would we define bullying in psychology?

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

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. It can also be considered a psychosocial factor, as it cause mental and physical harm to an individual.

Biological Explanations for Bullying StudySmarterBullying, Flaticon

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 when determining if a child will become a bully or a victim of bullying. They conducted a study on 2,116 twins aged 9–10 years old.

The research revealed genetic influences explained 73% of children’s risk for being a victim and 61% of their risk for 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.

Thalia et al. (1999) researched Swedish and British twins examining genetic and environmental influences as a determinant of bullying behaviour.

Researchers conducted the study on children and adolescents of 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 a sample.

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 acts as a moderator for 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. Males have high levels of testosterone, which may make them more prone to aggressive behaviour (more likelihood of being bullies). However, this may suggest a strong link between bullying and aggression compared to genes and bullying.

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 Genetic and Environmental Influences on Different Forms of Bullying StudySmarterHormones, Flaticon

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. They divided male retention strategies into two categories:

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

Men using direct guarding strategies were almost twice as likely to be violent towards their female partners.

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 bullied other men have more chances to choose as many females to mate with. It gives them the advantage to pass their genes into 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 genetic explanation that only blames the parent’s genes. This research can help reevaluate 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 along with 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.
  • There can be various reasons for developing such behaviour, ranging from genetics to psychological reasons to individual differences.
  • Ball et al. (2008) found that 61% of the children seemed to be at risk of becoming a bully, with 73% at the 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 are to becoming bullies or victims of bullying.
  • Through an evolutionary perspective, Wilson and Daly (1999) established a link between aggression and male retention strategies.
  • Shackleford et al. (2005) studied 107 married couples analysing the link between male retention strategies and aggression.
  • Volk et al. (2015) suggested that bullying as aggressive behaviour can be adaptive to secure mating success.

Frequently Asked Questions about Biological Explanations for Bullying

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

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.

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

The relational effects of bullying include:

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

Final Biological Explanations for Bullying Quiz

Question

How do researchers link bullying to genetics?

Show answer

Answer

Researchers imply our genetics play a vital role in influencing our psychological traits. This influence manifests as personal elements within us determining if we become a bully or a victim of bullying.

Show question

Question

What did they find in the study conducted by Ball et al. (2008)?

Show answer

Answer

The research revealed genetic influences explained 73% of children’s risk for being a victim and 61% of their risk for being a bully.  

Show question

Question

Who conducted the research analysing the genetic and environmental influence as a determinant of bullying behaviour?

Show answer

Answer

Thalia et al. (1999) studied genetic and environmental influence as a determinant of bullying behaviour. 

Show question

Question

What was the sample size of the study by Thalia et al. (1999)?

Show answer

Answer

A total of 1022 Swedish twins (one-third being identical twins) and 501 British twins (half being identical twins) were taken as a sample.

Show question

Question

What were the findings of Thalia et al. (1999)?

Show answer

Answer

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.

Show question

Question

Which neurotransmitter is linked to aggression and depression?

Show answer

Answer

Serotonin is known for regulating neurotransmitters linked to depression, aggression, impulsivity, stress and anxiety responses.

Show question

Question

How is 5- HTTLPR related to stress and depression according to Sweater et al. (2015)?

Show answer

Answer

According to Swearer et al. 2015, the 5-HTTLPR gene (transporter of serotonin in the body) also mediates stress and depression. 

Show question

Question

Why is the research by Swearer et al. (2015) criticised?

Show answer

Answer

The research evidence seems correlational, as it suggests only an indirect link between biological genes and bullying, such as Swearer et al. (2015), as it explains only the genetic predisposition of a person to develop bullying behaviour.

Show question

Question

Provide an argument in favour of the genetic explanation for bullying behaviour.

Show answer

Answer

Thalia et al. (1999) explain that environmental factors like role models also play an essential role apart from genetic predisposition to bullying.

Show question

Question

How are biological genes criticised as a determinant of bullying?

Show answer

Answer

The research ignores the involvement of hormones between both genders that may also be related to bullying behaviour. Males have high levels of testosterone which may make them more prone to aggressive behaviour (more likelihood of being bullies). However, this may suggest a strong link between bullying and aggression compared to biological genes and bullying.

Show question

Question

What is cuckoldry behaviour?

Show answer

Answer

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

Show question

Question

What is the male evolutionary perspective on bullying behaviour to cuckoldry?

Show answer

Answer

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

Show question

Question

Explain the two categories of male retention strategies by Wilson and Daly in 1995.

Show answer

Answer

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

Show question

Question

What was the research Shackleford et al. (2005) conducted?

Show answer

Answer

Shackleford et al. (2005) studied 107 married couples analysing the link between male retention strategies and aggression. Males completed the male retention inventory and the wives completed the spouse influence report. The results showed that aggression was used more in partner relationships maintaining the male retention strategies.

Show question

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