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Local study adds weight to theory bullying is genetic; anti-bullying advocate troubled

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SFU study found bullies the least likely to be depressed, had highest self-esteem and most social status

Bullying Canada has never heard of research that suggests bullying is not learned

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – Do bullies learn their behaviour or is it inherited?

Research out of SFU is adding weight to a new theory that bullying can be genetic, and the criminology professor who led the study is raising some eyebrows by suggesting schools rethink the way the behaviour is dealt with.

Researchers looked at bullying through the lens of evolutionary psychology and the hypothesis that it is an inherited trait which helps build social rank and sex appeal.

The study followed a group of Vancouver high school students and found bullies were the least likely to be depressed, had the highest self-esteem and the most social status.

While most anti-bullying programs try to change behaviour, lead researcher Jennifer Wong suggests schools should expand competitive activities for bullies, giving them a less harmful outlet for their dominating behaviour.

But some in the anti-bullying movement are troubled by the message being sent by the research — that bullies are biologically hard-wired to be cruel rather than acting out because they have experienced abuse themselves or had a dysfunctional home life.

“I don’t agree with it at all and I’ve been doing this for 10 years,” says Rob Frenette, co-founder of Bullying Canada, a support and advocacy group.

“Based on our information, research and the experts we’ve spoken to over the years, bullying is a learned behaviour. If you dig into a bullying situation, there’s usually some underlying fact that’s causing a bully to act out.”

Frenette says that can range from growing up in an abusive home to being physically bullied themselves.

“I don’t agree with the contention that bullying is genetic or, for lack of a better word, a built-in behaviour. I’ve never heard of research like this where they say it’s not a learned behaviour.”

Frenette is afraid the genetic theory of bullying will translate into a “step backward” for anti-bullying initiatives.

“How much damage is it going to cause with the current programming we have in place? It’s essentially saying the programming isn’t going to do anything because that’s the way you’re made and that’s the end of it,” he tells NEWS 1130.

“How many parents are going to see this and say their son or daughter is born this way and there’s nothing they can do to fix that behaviour? From our perspective, it is correctable and I’ve heard from individuals who bullied in school and they are now adults who understand what they’ve done and the damage they have caused.”