To the consternation of all downtrodden geeks, dweebs, sissies, melvins, Imperial students and nerds out there, those bullies who made your schooldays less than pleasant were probably more popular than you were. Research from the American Sociological Review has shown that, far from being thuggish, sociopathic bastards, they actually have an intricate network of friends. Perversely, it is because they are popular that they engage in such malevolence.
The researchers from the University of California mapped out an entire school’s social network, asking who was friends with whom (a bit bitchy if you ask me). Those individuals who were popular, but not at the top of the pile, were most likely to engage in antagonistic behaviours. From an evolutionary point of view, it makes perfect sense. These kids have everthing to gain by becoming the top dog in the playground, and so will do anything to put rival competitors in their place. In the schoolyard, this bullying behaviour could be physical, verbal or even social (spreading rumours for example). It’s not hard to see parallels in the adult world, where even in this supposedly civilised workplace, up to a third of workers can expect to be bullied at some point.
Those already at the top, the authors of the paper say, don’t need to use violence. For whatever reason, they are already in control, and any violence could be a signal of insecurity or weakness. Those at the bottom were also found to be non-violent, likely because they had no social capacity to exact revenge. You usually need a friend of two to help you in a fight after all. Increases in social status for whatever reason among any of the school’s subterranean outcasts was met with a similar increase in aggression.
It seems like nice guys do finish last, but they also finish first as well. Not sure if that’s a helpful modification of the expression, but there you go.