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Bullies aren’t all sociopaths — most are just trying to climb the social ladder, study says

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Salon, February 2021

If you were ever bullied as a child or teenager, the chances are that you were told at some point that bullies deserve your pity: That they have low self-esteem, are victims of abuse themselves or are acting out of mental illness.

Yet a new study reveals that a large number of bullies act as they do in order to gain status among their peers — and that in trying to climb the social ladder, they will often target their own friends. Indeed, researchers at the University of California–Davis, Pennsylvania State University, and Northeastern University have published a new paper in the American Journal of Sociology arguing just that. 

In the paper, the researchers describe an incident in which a Missouri seventh grader named Megan Meier was driven to suicide by her former middle school friend, Sarah Drew, who teamed up with her mother to bully the girl after she became popular and ended their friendship. The ensuing trial for Drew’s mother was heavily covered by media at the time.

Incidents like this, the researchers argue, demonstrate that there is a problem with the clichéd notion that bullying is primarily limited to children and teenagers with mental illnesses and damaged home lives.Instead, they claim experts should recognize that bullies are often motivated by the social rewards they believe they can receive from inflicting harm on others, even if those individuals are their own friends. “This is not because they spend more time with one another, but because they compete for the same social positions and relationships,” the authors explain. When people engage in bullying, they are frequently motivated by a desire to elevate their status at someone else’s expense.

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