Bullying is everywhere, according to Brock University professor, Tony Volk.
“It’s ubiquitous. Bullies are found across cultures and it has heritable and genetic components,” Volk explained. “It also has positive outcomes for the perpetrators. It gives them better access to resources, and is correlated strongly with popularity and dominance.”
Volk is an associate professor at Brock in the Department of Child and Youth Studies, and an associate member of the Department of Psychology. Volk pursued his graduate studies at Queen’s University, and his research focuses on bullying from an adaptive perspective.
Bullying has become an adaptive trait in humans, as it has played a major rule in our evolution as a species.
In his latest research project, published December 2017 in Evolutionary Psychology Science, Volk’s findings showed that bullies in their adolescent and teen years had a higher number of sexual partners than their counterparts who were not bullies. The study, titled “Do Bullies Have More Sex? The Role of Personality,” who showed that teens that scored lower on a factor called “honesty-humility” were more likely to engage in bullying behaviour in order to gain more sexual partners.
“Honesty-humility” is one of six personality factors measured on the HEXACO Personality Inventory, alongside emotionality, extraversion, conscientiousness, openness to experience, and agreeableness-anger. Volk stated the HEXACO model was developed by psychologists at the University of Calgary and Brock, as they found the ‘five-factor’ personality model insufficient. By adding the ‘honesty-humility’ factor, researchers were able to help understand bullying, psychopathy and sociopathy, among other things.
“Honesty-humility captures the idea of evilness,” Volk explained. “What it amounts to is a belief that you are better than, and deserve more, than other people, and that you’re okay with lying and cheating to get what you want. It’s a ‘me-first’ variable and it’s a powerful predictor of behaviours like bullying.”
Volk’s study found that male bullies manipulate and threaten females in an effort to have more sexual partners. With stories such as the Harvey Weinstein sexual assault allegations, Volk’s research is becoming more and more relevant.
“There are obviously strong parallels between this research and the #MeToo movement,” Volk stated. “Men and women are both able to be aggressive in romantic relationships, and while women may commit more aggressive behaviours in a relationship, men commit more severe aggressive behaviours. Power imbalance is a big feature of the #MeToo movement as well.”
Volk also explained how income inequality factored in the behaviour of bullies. In an unequal society, the stakes for winning and losing are high. This type of inequality can be a strong incentive for bullying behaviour. Additionally, bullying is more pronounced in situations where there is more of a power imbalance. Volk explained this dynamic within the context of a school environment.
“There is evidence that bullies are more likely to be popular in a school setting, and vice versa,” Volk said. “Income inequality creates opportunities for bullies.”
Inequality also leads to a potential solution against negative bullying behaviour. By promoting equality, there is less opportunity for exploitation of other people in any social situation. The other major way to counter bullying is an effective system for reporting and punishing bullies in work environments.
“Bullies aren’t dumb,” Volk explained. “Bullies understand that if a person is vulnerable, and there is an ineffective system in place, they can take advantage of it. We need to have a truly transparent and functional system for reporting behaviour like this, and we need to have functional responses as well.”
Volk was optimistic about social norms around bullying changing, and also was adamant that just because bullying was an evolutionary trait, it is not an inevitable and unchangeable feature of social relations.