Hardwired for Aggression Part I: Bullying, or Just Competitive?

Last month it was the military getting the media focus on this topic.

“We’re biologically wired in a certain way and there will be those who believe it is a reasonable thing to press themselves and their desires on others”
– General Lawson, Canadian Armed Forces.

Now it’s high school students.

“Bullying…behaviour is biologically hard-wired, not learned,”
– Jennifer Wong, SFU Criminology Dept.

This latest study to receive undue media attention seems to support the hardwiring theory. The media have jumped on this, assuming that this means that bullying is impossible to deal with, ignoring the second part of the study’s conclusions, which suggests nothing of the sort. Much of this misunderstanding can be laid at the feet of Ms Wong and her press releases, which do a very unscientific job of defining her terms, allowing people to assume that words say what they wish them to mean.

There is no doubt that aggression is hardwired into the upper vertebrates. We wouldn’t survive otherwise. Even the most timid of creatures will defend its young to the death. Pick up a mouse and see if it bites you. But when those interpreting the conclusions of the study make the jump from a natural protective instinct to bullying they descend from scientific analysis into wishful thinking.

Competition is Not Aggression is Not Bullying.
It all depends on definitions. Ms Wong may be a good researcher, but she should be careful how she uses language. Aggression is an inherited trait. It causes us to behave in certain ways. Competitiveness is likewise an inherited trait which influences our behaviours. Bullying is not an inherited trait. It is a label we put on an observed behaviour. There is such a thing as inherited behaviour, like the spinning of a spider web, which the spider does involuntarily, without choice. Nothing that I have found in the material Ms Wong gave to the media suggests this sort of involuntary need.

Put it in simpler terms to demonstrate the difference. Aggression is a natural (hardwired) response to stress. I am feeling stressed because I just lost my job. I have a natural inclination to react with aggressive behaviour to any further stress. So when you bump me in the bar and spill my beer, I punch your lights out. The aggression is natural, inbred, hardwired. The aggressive behaviour is not. At least, not in Canada (We’ll be talking about norms in Part II). It is the way I choose to act.
Another example. Competitiveness is a natural (hardwired) response to other humans. I am a new student in Grade 10, meeting my classmates for the first time. It is a natural reaction to want to make a position for myself in this pecking order. So when I see another student make a mistake, I draw everyone’s attention to it, so I get a laugh. The competitiveness is natural. The bullying behaviour is not. It is the way I choose to act.

There are scientists who suggest that the aggressive reaction to stress is a learned behaviour as well, but we don’t need to go that far for the purposes of our discussion today. Let’s assume that there is an inbred desire in humans to defend ourselves and our loved ones.

Continuum of Aggressive Behaviour
There are many circumstances where humans choose to participate in aggressive behaviour. Bullying is only one, at the unacceptable end of the scale. Somewhere in the middle is physical competition by mutual agreement, the most pervasive learning tool in all the upper vertebrates. (Ever watch kittens or puppies play? How about High School Basketball?) This is simply an outlet for competitiveness, and is much more socially acceptable. At the top end of the spectrum, the defence of the defenceless would be one of the most acceptable uses of aggressive behaviour. That’s why we have police (in theory, anyway).
So I’m sorry, Ms Wong, but you may have proved that aggression and competitiveness are hardwired responses to the world, but not bullying. However, we forgive you for saying something inflammatory to get media attention. The rest of your results are much more useful.


The reason that these research results are important is that many educators jump from one end of the continuum to the other and equate bullying with competition. Many people who have experienced bullying have an emotional response to the problem, not a rational one, and their knee-jerk reaction is to lump all types of aggression together and try to eradicate them all.

Anti-Competition Bias
Because their talent is teaching, educators believe they can teach bullies to act differently. In the past bullies have used organized competition, especially in schools, to work their nasty tricks (ever hear of the “picked last in gym class” syndrome?) So these educators feel that the best environment they can provide is competition-free.
The results of this study show that they couldn’t be more wrong. Because the desire to compete exists in every human, it’s pretty futile to consider that you are going to affect change by denying that it exists (The Victorian era tried it with sexuality, and look where that got us). Ms Wong’s conclusions suggest that one good way to deal with aggressive tendencies is to provide an outlet for them in socially acceptable ways.
Not that this changes much. The stereotypical Football Star, Head Cheerleader, and King and Queen of the Prom have been basking in this glory for years. Now it seems that it’s too bad we got rid of that sort of thing. What needs to be done is to provide ways for those with different talents to achieve equal social success. The rise of the computer society has been a positive change, because geeks are coming into their own. Instead of Happy Days, we have Big Bang Theory.
Other studies have shown that when socially acceptable competitive activities are available, bullying goes down. The desire to compete is there; deal with it.

So just like Ms Wong, these educators have lumped learned behaviours in with hardwired traits, and are trying to deal with them all at once. Aggression and competitiveness are natural responses to the environment. Bullying behaviour is a choice, and thus a learned behaviour. People who want to remove all competition from schools are doing children a great disservice, because they are trying to deny a natural element of humanity. Instead we should channel the natural tendencies of the students into positive activities.

Separate the natural inclinations that are hardwired into the human psyche from the learned behaviours that we participate in, and we can deal with the problems. Lump them all together in an unscientific muddle of poorly defined terms, and all we get is a marginally successful anti-bullying program and a media heyday with poor information and counterproductive results.

In Part II next week, we will deal with the important part of Ms Wong’s comments, norms, and how they affect bullying.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *