Is bullying in our nature? Does bullying have a genetic cause that’s encoded into our genes? Sadly, much like the propensity towards violence or warfare, bullying is one of those destructive behaviors that comprise the long dark shadow of human nature. Social anthropologist Christopher Boehm thinks bullying behavior probably has evolutionary roots, and that early humans who were good at manipulating or intimidating others achieved an advantage in social standing. (Svoboda, 2014)

Bullying is not genetic in the sense that there are no gene sequences which would MAKE kids bully. (Even those genes believed to encode for aggressive tendencies show only a modest correlation with violence, and these genes can be “turned off,” or rendered silent through an epigenetic marker based on a child’s experiences in their environment.) But things like group aggression and the capacity to enjoy another’s torment are very much part of our common human nature. These hardwired traits do not cause bullying behavior, nor are they an excuse, but they do help explain why bullying can come so naturally to kids.

1. Kids are born to notice differences
Even infants show an inherent tendency to see differences. Studies show that 6-month-olds will stare longer at the face of someone of a different race than they will a picture of someone from their own race, which indicates they are noticing and paying attention to these differences. (Bronson & Merryman, 2009)

2. Segregating ourselves comes naturally
One study conducted across 3 different preschool classrooms randomly assigned four-to five-year-olds to wear either a blue T-shirt or Red T-shirt for three weeks. During this time, the teachers never mentioned the group colors, nor did they group kids together by them. Their play was not segregated, and kids carried on classroom activities as they normally would. Yet after this 3-week period, when asked questions such as “which color is smarter, red or blue?” or “Who is nicer, red or blue?” or “Who is more likely to win a race, red or blue?” their answers fell along the color they were assigned. The ones who had worn red T-shirts were sure that red was a better/nicer/more competent color, and vice versa for the blues. (ibid) It illustrates how the ability to group ourselves (and think less of others outside our group) comes naturally, and can be triggered even by subtle cues.

3. Children naturally discriminate against what’s different
A different study showed American 5-year-olds photographs of different children paired with audio of either a normal English-speaking child or one who spoke perfect English but in a French accent. Kids were 4-times more likely to choose the “normal” speaker as a friend. (Gluszek, 2010)

4. Punishing others can give us pleasure
Human beings are wired with the capacity to feel pleasure at someone else’s misfortune, especially when that person isn’t part of our group or is somehow in competition with us. Brain imaging scans reveal that when someone we categorize as an “other” endures pain or misfortune, the brain’s reward center becomes active, releasing a dose of pleasure and satisfaction that is comparable to eating a good meal. (Anthes, 2010) In an everyday example of this, think about the guy who is behind himself with glee as a friend rolls on the ground in agony after being hit in the testicles, or the amusement many people get in watching videos of skateboard accidents. The degree to which we feel such sadistic pleasure depends on a person’s degree of empathy, but we all have this neural wiring in place. If natural empathy is lacking or if group hostility is encouraged in the culture, bullying can become downright pleasurable. And since humans will always gravitate towards pleasurable feelings, social psychology will always degenerate towards bullying when the right cultural attitudes are in place.

The Good News: Nurture trumps nature when it comes to bullying

The aforementioned examples show how human nature can tilt in the direction of bullying behavior. Yet every one of these inherent biases can be overcome or even reversed when children are raised in the proper environment. When children are taught to embrace differences and have experiences with diverse playmates, this “similarity” bias disappears and they may actually seek out the strange or unfamiliar. When parents emphasize treating all others with kindness and respect, the tendency to segregate ourselves whittles away. When children are raised in ways that breed high levels of empathy, the circuitry that feels pain when others are hurt overrides the circuitry for taking pleasure in someone else’s suffering. The character traits that are built up in their higher brain functioning can easily override these evolutionary remnants that program us towards group bias.

It’s only when society fails in these regards that bullying behavior thrives. Sadly, our society is failing in many ways: Prejudice, conflict, and bully mentality is rampant throughout our culture, and many parents fail to do enough to counteract this influence. This is why even otherwise good kids can so easily fall into the bullying trap.