A new study has found that, rather than outcasts looking to shore up their own social status, most bullies are actually popular — but they're not at the very top of the social hierarchy.
According to researchers at UC Davis, kids in the 98th percentile of popularity showed the most aggression — defined as "behavior directed toward harming or causing pain to another." They displayed 28% more aggressive behavior than kids at the bottom of the social ladder, and 40% more than kids at the very top. Study author Robert Faris suggests that kids need a certain level of social security to engage in bullying:
Aggression usually requires some degree of social support, power, or influence. This is mostly because students expect to see each other on a daily basis at school and any act of aggression brings risk of retaliation. Those at the center of the web of social ties are, we believe, more powerful and may deter retribution.
However, kids at the top may actually pay a penalty for aggression — "If an adolescent at the top of the social hierarchy were to act aggressively towards his or her peers, such action could signal insecurity or weakness rather than cement the student's position" — or they may not need to be mean — "it's possible that, at the highest level, they may receive more benefits from being pro-social and kind." There's also a third possibility: that kids at the very top have something special about their personalities that allows them to attain high status without trampling others. Whatever the case, the study makes school sound a little bit like the Roman Empire — you have to stay ruthless until you become the ruler, at which point you can please your subjects with bread and circuses.
So how can we use this information to help kids? Faris noted that his study calls into question the idea that bullying begins at home: "For a long time, there was emphasis on seeing aggression as a product of the home environment. Here we're getting a different picture." If aggression is determined in part by social standing, then maybe we need to fight it through social interventions. Says Faris, "I would start by focusing on the kids who are not involved and work on encouraging them to be less passive or approving of these sorts of antagonistic relationships. It's through these kids who are not involved that the aggressive kids get their power." Making bullying somehow uncool seems like the best and most organic way to combat it, but stigmatizing something so deeply entrenched in many kids' lives won't be easy. Kids usually need to make their own decisions about what's cool — but maybe showing them the incredible harm that bullying can do would help to sway them.