Research into bullying sheds light on the evolution of human egalitarian societies.
Bullying is a huge problem in schools, workplaces and even in the cyberworld. But, at the same time, modern human societies are mostly egalitarian and built on cooperation. University of Tennessee professor Sergey Gavrilets conducted a study using mathematical models to predict how the bullying behaviour of our distant ancestors might have influenced the way we deal with troublemakers in today’s societies.
“Cooperation at various levels has allowed us to become the dominant species on our planet,” says Gavrilets, author of a study recently published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). “Standing up to bullies eroded their power and resulted in the emergence of more egalitarian societies.”
In most animal societies the weak will avoid conflict with dominant members of the hierarchy, but if necessary, they will look for help or stand for themselves. Through nonlinear modelling, Gavrilets identified a general mechanism where the motivation to help weaker group members could actually be strong enough to overcome the cost of interfering in conflicts.
“I came to realise that there is indeed a selfish reason for people to help the weak,” says Gavrilets. “I built a model to study if this motivation to help is strong enough (in an evolutionary sense) to overcome the costs of helping and what kind of social psychology would emerge as a result of this process.”
Gavrilets explains his evolutionary model by asking us to consider three individuals, A, B and C; each one of them has one unit of resource (and therefore approximately 33 per cent of group reproduction). “Assume that A takes the resource from B by force so they now have 2, 0 and 1 [units of resource] respectively”¦ If there is nonlinearity, say, quadratic, then A’s 2 units will transform into 80 per cent of reproduction while C’s share will drop to 20 per cent (because 2^2:1 equals 80:20). Now C has direct motivation to stop A from getting too much resource.”
In societies where there is competition for resources and reproductive success, standing up to bullies and creating coalitions leads to dramatic reductions in inequality, which has benefits for each individual. There will always be the better fighters and more successful maters, however, Gavrilets explains, in general humans have an egalitarian drive to prevent the transfer of resources from a weaker group member to a stronger one.
Gavrilets findings support existing research that shows how more egalitarian societies, such as in Scandinavia, have lower rates of bullying. According to the National Centre Against Bullying, 27 per cent of young people in Australia report they are being bullied face-to-face at least every two weeks and one in ten report that they are regularly the victim of cyber-bullying.
Currently the Australian government is developing a national social media campaign to help tackle the growing problem. The goal is to use online media to promote anti-bullying information to as many individuals and homes as possible. There are also plans to develop a new online toolkit, which will be a “one-stop shop” with information for parents, teachers and students on how to deal with bullying. Other online mental health services, such as Reach out and Beyond Blue, also have advice and information on what to do if you, or someone you know, are being harassed.
Gavrilets sheds light on how altruism and egalitarianism might have evolved. His models show how preventing stronger individuals from gaining more resources, results in the evolution of a particular, genetically controlled psychology that causes people to take the side of the victims and interfere in conflicts.