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A new national anti-bullying ad campaign urges parents to teach their kids to speak up if they witness bullying. One UT researcher has found that in humans’ evolutionary past, at least, helping the victim of a bully hastened our species’ movement toward a more egalitarian society.

NIMBioSSergey Gavrilets, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, found that humans have evolved a genetically controlled drive to help weaker individuals fight back against a bully. The drive to help the weaker group members led to a dramatic reduction in group inequality and eventually enabled humans to develop widespread cooperation, empathy, compassion, and egalitarian moral values.

Using a mathematical model, Gavrilets—the associate director for scientific activities at UT’s National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS)—showed that differences in fighting abilities cause hierarchies to emerge where stronger individuals take away resources from weaker individuals.

However, when individuals realize greater benefits can occur if they prevent the transfer of resources from weaker individuals, a particular genetically controlled psychology evolves that causes individuals to intervene on behalf of the victim.

Gavrilets finds that while intervening carries some risk, it pays off in the long term, ensuring that everyone’s resources remain equal.

“Based on the results, helping the victim, then, is the evolutionary ‘right’ thing to do, not only from a victim’s point of view or a societal point of view, but also the helper’s point of view,” said Gavrilets. “As such, I’d speculate that this is also a psychologically rewarding thing to do in spite of the risks potentially involved.”

The findings appear to support prior research showing that more egalitarian societies, such as in Scandinavian countries, appear to keep bullying in check. In one of the earliest cross-national studies on bullying in schools by professor Dan Olweus at Clemson University, who pioneered anti-bullying programs worldwide beginning in the early 1980s, the behavior was found to occur at lower rates in Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. These findings are supported by additional, more recent studies by the National Institutes of Health and the World Health Organization.

With almost one in five US students reporting having been bullied sometimes or more often and a recent spate of teen suicides linked to bullying, the Obama administration has vowed to make anti-bullying a national priority and has endorsed the national ad campaign.

The findings are published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and can be found here.

NIMBioS brings together researchers from around the world to collaborate across disciplinary boundaries to investigate solutions to basic and applied problems in the life sciences. It is sponsored by the National Science Foundation, the US Department of Homeland Security and the US Department of Agriculture, with additional support from UT. For more information, visit www.nimbios.org.

C O N T A C T :

Catherine Crawley (865-974-9350, ccrawley@utk.edu)

Whitney Heins (865-974-5460, wheins@utk.edu)