Does Study Refute Long-Held Ideas about Bullying Behavior?

Three boys whispering in huddle with a girl in the distanceThe research-backed claim that people who bully others are jealous or have low self-esteem has long been theorized to be a possible explanation for cruel behavior, but a new study from Simon Fraser University presents findings that appear to dispute this long-standing belief. Researchers found, in a small survey of high school students, that those who bullied actually had higher-than-average rates of self-esteem.

Are Bullies at the Top of the Social Hierarchy?

A 2014 survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute found that 27% of employees have been bullied at work, and 52% of children and teens report experiencing cyberbullying. Past studies have shown that people who experience mental health concerns are more likely to be identified as bullies, which suggests that bullying might often occur as a result of untreated depression, anger, or anxiety, with those who bully continuing a cycle of abuse by lashing out at others.

This body of research, however, seems to be contradicted by the new study’s findings. Researchers surveyed 135 Vancouver teenagers from the same high school. Students answered questions about bullying experiences, such as how frequently they were hit or shoved, and were placed into one of four categories: bully, bystander, victim, or victim-bully. The responses led researchers to categorize 11% of participants as bullies.

All students were then assessed on four dimensions of mental health: depression, social status, self-esteem, and social anxiety. The teens who had been categorized as bullies were found to have the highest levels of self-esteem. They were also more popular than their victims and their peers who did not bully, and they had the lowest rates of depression.

A separate study by a Brock University psychologist surveyed 178 teenagers and found similar results. This study also found that the teens who bullied others were more sexually active than their peers.

The Bullying Debate Continues

The authors of the Vancouver study argue that their results demonstrate a genetic basis for bullying. The fact that those who bully others tend to be more popular than their peers, they suggest, indicates that bullying can produce higher social status, therefore demonstrating that the behavior has been shaped by evolution. Neither study tested for a genetic basis for bullying or explored whether bullying affected the evolutionary fitness of human ancestors. The study’s authors have said that more research is needed before the findings can be considered definitive.

Anti-bullying advocates generally support the belief that bullying is the product of a complex interaction between personality, environment, early experiences, and relationships with peers, and they work to reduce bullying by attempting to help individuals who bully resolve these issues and adjust their behaviors. A 2012 study—which followed 64,000 children—found that those who bullied other children were more than twice as likely as those who did not bully others to experience mental health issues. It did not find that they had a higher social status than their peers.


  1. 2014 WBI U.S. workplace bullying survey February 2014. (2014, February). Retrieved from
  2. Cyber bullying statistics 2014. (2014, February 24). Retrieved from
  3. Koh, J., & Wong, J. S. (2015). Survival of the fittest and the sexiest: Evolutionary origins of adolescent bullying. Journal of Interpersonal Violence. Doi:10.1177/0886260515593546
  4. Salahi, L. (2012, October 22). Bullies nearly twice as likely to have mental health disorder. Retrieved from
  5. Study: Bullies have higher self-esteem, lower depression rates. (2015, July 28). Retrieved from

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  • melody r

    melody r

    July 29th, 2015 at 3:44 PM

    I know that there are some bullies out there who behave this way because they are trying to make themselves feel better about themselves but I know that there are others who do not have that problem with low self esteem at all. They are acting this way because they know that they are a little higher on the food chain in that particular setting and that they want to flaunt that to the max. Those might actually be a little sadder than the ones who are lower in the hierarchy because they should be happy with what they have but it still never seems to be enough.

  • Seth


    July 30th, 2015 at 10:41 AM

    Whether they are popular or not at school, there is still something seriously wrong with a child who gets off on picking on others.

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