Are humans bullies by nature?

When I was at Tamatea High School in Napier, years ago, one of the gangs of bullies who prowled the place always greeted me the same way. “Here comes Wright. He must die!” Usually it was posed as a public question: “Hello Wright, do you want to die?” It was a daily event.

Academic values demand that the INTRUDER must be UTTERLY DESTROYED!
Academic values demand that the INTRUDER must be UTTERLY DESTROYED!

I wasn’t alone. They did this to everybody, and it was wholly unprovoked. Merely walking into view, it seems, was sufficient to cause them to publicly threaten to kill all those they saw. They never tried to carry out their death threats, which gave due dimension to such conduct. But, equally, the school did nothing useful to stop them making such threats in the first place, or to forestall any of the other ways they and the other bullies abused and intimidated pupils.

I have long accepted that humans bully each other by nature. As a species, it seems our default conduct is to break, destroy and take away whatever the other person has, no matter what that may be – and the easiest way of doing it is to first take away the right or ability of the target to respond. It was apparently a survival tactic, way back when. What’s more, our society – and particularly our intellectual institutions – facilitate such conduct by providing rules that perpetrators can exploit to not merely enable that bully conduct, but to use those rules to pretend they’re not behaving that way. The same systems also provide mechanisms behind which they can cower if their target does dare to respond.

And yes, I know we talk about human kindness – but this keeps having to be worked on, doesn’t it? We’ve fought wars since forever, and by that I mean that archaeological finds reveal we were doing it even as hunter-gatherers, way before (in theory) there was anything much to fight over. There is, I think, good reason why the majority of world religions have always carried the same message: ‘Let’s be nice to each other’. It is a message that keeps being repeated, and rightly so – but then keeps being lost, down to the point where people bully and fight each other over how to believe in that general message of kindness – including within the same religion. Damn.

There is a fairly good scientific explanation as to why. Of late, it’s been shown that revenge and hatred – biochemically – offers a greater sense of reward and satisfaction than acts of kindness. People hurt each other because it’s an easy way to make themselves feel good, irrespective of what happens to the victim. Kindness, in short, is something humans need to work on. And we should – to my mind, ahead of all other considerations. The tragedy of the human condition is that we don’t.

Think Velociraptors were like Jurassic Park? Think again. They were about the size of a large turkey...and looked like this...

The question, then, isn’t whether humans are bullies or not. The question is whether the institutions and systems we create to exalt our conceits of being intellectual especially reward that behaviour, despite the point that intelligence, surely, should allow us to avert our flaws as a species. My experience isn’t hopeful. The Tamatea High School gang was a minority – loud, threatening, but a minority. University, though, seemed to produce a massively higher percentage of bullies, where the behaviour had been intellectualised into the subject matter – but it was bully-behaviour nonetheless. My experience since of the intellectual world, certainly in New Zealand, is that it is dominated by such people to the point where any who even points it out risks triggering abuse from strangers.

So I have to wonder: do humans, by nature, behave as bullies – and create institutional structures at various scales that facilitate it?


Copyright © Matthew Wright 2017

16 thoughts on “Are humans bullies by nature?

  1. A lot of humans do, for sure. Sometimes it seems to be born out of pack mentality, other times individually due to varying circumstances (difficulties at home etc.). There’s an excellent episode of Frasier where the eponymous character, and brother Niles, accidentally meet their school bullies and it all plays out interestingly. Niles picks at his former bully’s brain and the latter ends up slouched over crying with a revelation.

    Then there are genuinely magnanimous people who help to make the world go round, but there are definitely more bullies. It’s just easier to do, I should think!

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    1. That’s the issue – bullying is far too easy. Just attack somebody and then take away their ability to defend themselves – you can’t lose. I draw no distinction between the people who do that physically, or the intellectuals who exploit the frameworks of their employment I’ve run into this, yet again, just a few weeks ago – a university professor who claimed that I ‘think’ I am ‘above’ a rather abstruse academic philosophy. I neither subscribe to that philosophy nor think I am ‘above’ it, but when I approached the professor with a request for the facts (if any) behind his claim, he sent me a deeply patronising note telling me how wrong I was to object, stood by his allegation, then cut me off from further discussion. Classic bully tactics, including the cowardice. The worst of it is, such people are so isolated in their little worlds that they have no idea how far they’ve drifted from any proper sense of moral compass towards others; and for me the key issue is the fact that this drift, inevitably, seems to take them into bully territory.

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      1. Too true, sir! I realise now my last boss was a bully – he really flaunted his power and behaved atrociously. It can be upsetting and inexplicable that someone intelligent can behave in such a way – a lot of people are definitely isolated in their matters. That’s why I cherish good natured people. They can really lift your day.

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  2. I won’t claim any sort of anthropological expertise, but from the point of view of ideas that stimulate discussion, Riane Eisler”s book The Chalice and the Blade is very interesting. Eisler’s idea is that there was a peaceful, relatively unwarlike society in central Europe in the late Neoloithic, which was conquered by an extremely warlike and brutal society of horsemen from the steppes of Russia. Eisler contends that the cultural shock of this invasion resulted in the brutalization and subsequent militarization of central European societies. Regardless, Eisler makes some intriguing points about “dominator psychology,” the result of this cultural trauma, which resulted in hierarchies based on dominance and physical power.

    I would propose that, if one studies the development of the English common law, and the American legal system which “received” the English common law, the feudal legal system — enshrining dominance behavior in the stratified aristocracy over the peasants who tilled the land (I know, vast oversimplification) — remains an interesting, and unstudied, relic of that past. Some interesting linguistic/historic archaeology might be done from that perspective, to show how the present legal system exists to perpetuate that past.

    This would be a wonderful PhD thesis or six.

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    1. I disagree with Eisler on a whole raft of levels – not least being that it’s naive to suppose that any human culture should lack what, on the face of it, is a basic human behaviour: violence. Even chimps do it, suggesting it’s actually an ape thing (given that we’re one of the seven surviving species of apes). The idea of a ‘dominator’ mind-set in culture is intriguing though, and something that many societies seem to slip in and out of.


      1. If I remember correctly, I don’t think Eisler denied the propensity of humans for aggressive behavior, quite the contrary. In the connection of homicidal behavior, though, have you ever read Dave Grosman’s book On Killing, wherein he details his work on how killing in combat is motivated?

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  3. Well, darn, and all of that to say no, I don’t think at a genetic level (or the fundamental level at which “behavior” begins to manifest) humans are fundamentally bullies.

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    1. Just how and where the fundamental human condition originates – and how it’s framed – is a fascinating subject. Is it genetic? Nature versus nurture? Cultural? All of the above? My own thought is that it probably has quite a bit to do with the specifics of our evolution, over which the rest are overlaid. A few months back I met a professor of evolutionary biology from Chicago University, who was touring New Zealand and had a very brief chat about evolutionary psychology. Very brief. It was a social gathering of about half a dozen fans of this professor, and I was sitting next to the President of the New Zealand Humanist Society who wanted to talk about the way some New Zealand schools, which by law are secular and forbidden to teach religion, actually teach religion via various mechanisms such as ‘closing’ for an hour while the lesson is given. That’s a totally other subject, of course, but it stopped me pursuing the discussion I was interested in…


  4. I think bullying behavior comes back to tribalism, which you’ve discussed before. Whether it’s the gang at your high school or a single person who feels isolated and lashes out against others, I think our natural state is to “Other” people who are not in our “in-groups”. A lot of our modern institutions would built to combat this, at least in theory. The very idea of a democratic republic is intended to protect the rights of minorities and sub-cultures within a country while also giving them fair representation in government. The issue is that human nature always comes into play. Perhaps if we can design robots to rule human civilization fairly, our institutions could be truly unbiased 😛

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    1. I think it’s definitely related to the size of hunter-gatherer communities. If only we could build robots that showed us a better way! Asimov looked into the sort of society that might follow in a good deal of detail with his ‘Robot’ novels – and a very laudable idea it was too. The problem, of course, is applying the ‘Three Laws of Robotics’ in practise, something else Asimov was very well aware of given that most of his stories and novels were about how those laws were either made to bend, or failed in some way.

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  5. Great post once again Matthew.

    In most, I don’t think humans are natural bullies although, I do wonder if there are now more people ‘institutionalised’ into becoming such. If this is the case, it is really very, very sad as well as frightening.

    Maybe look at how these ‘institutions’ are structured, structured up to, could reveal who the true bullies are….

    Outwith the ‘institution’, if a person is a bully, it may be associated to they themselves having been a victim to bullying in one way, shape or form.

    Bullying does not necessarily have to be physical. In these current times it could be psychological as well as carried out via various in-direct, not so obvious methods (manipulation).

    Having been bullied myself, whilst in secondary education, as well as encountering scenarios in after school life, which at the time probably weren’t ‘classed’ or ‘categorised’ as ‘bullying’ but could be now (mainly due to these alleged ‘rules’ which needless to say are more than likely only truly applied, when someone wants to bully).

    I always tell myself, it is the bully (irrespective of ‘the type’) that really has the problem, the issue, they are not worth it, they are actually weak as well as pathetic (need to hide behind something).

    They don’t deserve to be ‘categorised’ under ‘human’.

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  6. I also believe that there is probably some kind of biological element to dominance behavior, it’s just too universal an animal behavior–but then it takes humans to perfect, abstract, and amplify it to the level we take it. I was struck by your reference to some study showing that people receive more bio-chemical reward for such behavior than to kindness behavior. I think this could be stated another way, if given a choice between revenge and mercy, we are much more attracted to the vengeance.

    I almost typed justice in place of revenge just then, because besides the powerfully rewarding feeling that revenge gives us, we tell ourselves that’s what it is.

    The bullies I encountered in childhood thought they were meting out justice. Justice for their own outsider status in school (which they were only allowed to act out against other outsiders, never the “normals”), others were dispensing justice against my offensive political views, or justice against my seeming inconcern for the things they valued.

    As we deal with the ethical choices we face in our lives, it’s very hard to ask ourselves where we have confused those things: justice and revenge.


  7. What gets me about school bullies is that they never just grow out of it. The school bullies, and all of those who endorsed their behaviour, are now adults in society. They are voters, they are members of the jury, they are in our workplaces, they are wearing the uniforms of police and armed services, they are everywhere – and through inaction at school they now have the belief that the way they treat others is not only acceptable, but is rewarded. They may bully in different ways as adults, but the behaviour is the same. Sadly, I do think that it is part of the human condition. People wouldn’t do it if it didn’t work.

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  8. I completely agree about the tribalism part.
    I recently started writing,i think you will like my last post,its worth checking 🙂


  9. I would have to agree with the tribalism idea. In the world today there’s a lot of division among peoples over political views, religion, and race. Of course such things have always been there, but I perceive that such things, formerly discouraged, are now supported more than before. People are “othering” other people even when it makes little sense. Another commentor made an excellent point, “People wouldn’t do it if it didn’t work.” For some bloody strange reason it does work. I wonder why we’re letting ourselves go to pot in this regard.


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