As It Turns Out, Popularity Doesn’t Stop Bullying

Everyone knows how bullying works, because we’ve seen it in a thousand teen movies and some of us have experienced it ourselves: the loners and the misfits, the chess club members and the mathletes, they’re the ones who get bullied, right? Everyone picks on them, contributing to their social marginalization and making them feel even more isolated.

But what if that’s not how social combat, as sociologist Robert Faris calls it, actually works? Faris, along with colleague Diane Felmlee, just published a study in the American Sociological Review taking a closer look at social combat and how it plays out in school environments. The study is especially important right now, as bullying is a growing social issue and many parents, educators and other people who work with youth are interested in finding an effective way to foster strong connections in school environments.

He found two surprising things in the study. The first was that popularity doesn’t shelter people from social combat, with the exception of the very top of the social hierarchy. Secondly, he learned that social combat can actually be more damaging for people in the middle and upper ranks of the hierarchy than it can for those towards the bottom. These counterintuitive results are absolutely fascinating, and they shed new light into how social combat works.

What his study shows is that social combat isn’t just about picking on people who are perceived to be weaker and more vulnerable. It’s also about climbing the social ladder, and the tactic many people use to do that involves put downs, insults and other acts of meanness. The further people climb, though, the more they have to lose, so when others respond in kind on their own way into the higher echelons of school society, the more worried they get about their social standing. The study doesn’t suggest that lower-status individuals don’t suffer, but rather that social combat can have a chilling effect for those with a higher social standing.

Once people climb up to around the top 4 percent of school society, they apparently bully less, and aren’t bullied thanks to their position. The decline in bullying makes sense, as they have no incentive to do so when there’s nowhere else to climb. And, while their peers might try to catch up to them, it’s harder thanks to their powerful social status.

What does this mean for adults wanting to create safer, more nurturing school environments?

Many anti-bullying efforts have focused on building tolerance and breaking down barriers between different social groups, on the assumption that people won’t bully each other if they’re taught to respect the differences in their communities. However, this approach only addresses one piece of the puzzle — while students are mocked, teased and treated cruelly for their disabilities, sexual orientations and other differences, they’re also bullied in an attempt to climb the social ranks.

Consequently, anti-bullying programs need to focus on breaking down ranks and hierarchies, showing people that they can develop a respected social status without having to be cruel, and creating a mutually rewarding learning environment. Since the adult world is unfortunately built on the very same hierarchies and “get ahead at all costs” mentality, adults might be better served by looking inwards at our own society and exploring ways we can change it in order to model a more functional world to children and teens.

Photo credit: DozoDomo.


Janice Thompson
Janice Thompson3 years ago

Bullying is a way for a person with an inferiority complex to feel "big".

Good luck fixing that.

Siobhan Ball
Siobhan Ball3 years ago

How are we catagorising bullying in this study exactly? One of the things that measures where the bottom of the social hierachy for pretty much every school I've ever heard of is that the kids there are routinely bullied by every one else. Are we not counting that because casual name calling and ostracisation don't count in some way? Or because we think they deserve it for being weird? Or because its so normalised and happens so continuously it can't possibly be bullying?

Margarita P.
Margarita P3 years ago

I am surprised to see that even kids who have friends sometimes get bullied. I saw some other article on bullying that said the average school child has 5 friends, but even kids with only one friend at school usually didn't get bullied. I remember middle school as being bad. I probably did have 5 friends at school at times, but I was a target of bullies & I also was a bully myself. High school started at 10th grade back then. I was a loner again, but bullying was not an issue. I don't remember having had any friends, but I was happy that I didn't have any enemies.

John W.
.3 years ago

Sounds like the same idiots who said pink is a girls colour because women used to look for fruit, and there are lots of pink fruit.

Val M.
Val M3 years ago


Kevin Brown
Kevin Brown3 years ago

Maybe if every teenage film made in the last 35 years did not glorify bullying as something all the "cool" kids do there would not be so much of a problem. I am usually not one to blame mass media for social problems but I think there is a connection here.

Sure, bullying has always existed, but at one time it was not glorified. Even if the bullies are ultimately shown to be "bad" or to "get theirs" the message is still clear, bullying is something the popular kids do to the less popular kids. That message has permeated the media for decades.

Roxana Saez
Roxana Saez3 years ago

Given the right environmental conditions...anyone can become a bully. It's important to be mindful of the energy you bring into each and every situation and be aware of what is being emitted around you. You can be part of the problem or the solution...the choice is up to you.

Anne Moran
Anne Moran3 years ago

Bullies are everywhere, and they bully anyone they can get their hands on..

They're not only in schools, they can be in your own home...

Your spouse, kids, neighbors, can be 'that' bully...

Think about it...

Carole R.
Carole R3 years ago

Interesting post. Thanks.

Liliana Garcia
Liliana Garcia3 years ago

Sorry about the messed up sentence:
"I think Marianne has hit on something that may or may not be universally built in the human psyche..."