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Why bullies earn more later in life

A recent study has discovered a direct correlation between aggressive tendencies at a young age and prosperous economic outcomes later in life. But what will it take to change this?

user iconKace O'Neill 12 April 2024 Big Law
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Editor’s note: This story first appeared on Lawyers Weekly’s sister brand, HR Leader.

Children who show aggressive behaviour towards others during their youth are usually, and rightfully, scolded by teachers and parents. The label of bully is often used to describe the children who hold these characteristics, especially if their behaviour is detrimental to those around them.

These bullies are then ostracised unless their behaviour changes and are threatened with the long-term ramifications of being a bully, which is usually framed as one of hardship and isolation. However, a recent five-decade study has revealed that the notion of bullies not flourishing later in life is merely a fabrication.


The findings

The research collected data from almost 7,000 people born in 1970 whose lives were tracked and recorded. The research team examined data from primary school teachers who assessed the participants on their social and emotional skills at the age of 10, and then matched it with their lives at the age of 46.

According to the study, conditional on a range of confounding variables, the data showed conduct problems, driven by aggression and impulsivity, can be associated with positive outcomes in the labour market.

That can be higher wages, higher labour supply, sorting into “good” jobs, and higher productivity on job tasks. Either way, people who were somewhat aggressive in their youth tend to kick on to successful professional careers.

This interpretation is also supported by studies that link competitive or aggressive behaviour with success in entrepreneurial or high-stakes careers.

Professor Emilia Del Bono, one of the study’s authors, stated: “We found that those children who teachers felt had problems with attention, peer relationships and emotional instability did end up earning less in the future, as we expected, but we were surprised to find a strong link between aggressive behaviour at school and higher earnings in later life.”

The study really highlighted the fact that, strikingly, conduct problems, such as aggression, are found to be positively related to earnings. This means that children who held aggressive behaviours in their youth, or were considered bullies, were more likely to land a better-paying job later in life, which, in a roundabout way, is almost a reward for this behaviour.

What does bullying look like?

First off, it’s important to understand what a bully is. The term bully can be attributed to a number of instances in contemporary society. Getting shoved in a locker, beaten up, or verbally abused may still happen, but as society has transformed, so have the techniques of bullying.

According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, bullying is when “people repeatedly and intentionally use words or actions against someone or a group of people to cause distress and risk to their wellbeing. These actions are usually done by people who have more influence or power over someone else, or who want to make someone else feel less powerful or helpless.”

Repeated behaviour of any of the below subjects can be classed as bullying:

  • Keeping someone out of a group (online or offline).
  • Acting in an unpleasant way near or towards someone.
  • Giving nasty looks, making rude gestures, calling names, being rude and impolite, and constantly negative teasing.
  • Spreading rumours or lies, or misrepresenting someone (i.e. using their Facebook account to post messages as if it were them).
  • Mucking about that goes too far.
  • Harassing someone based on their race, sex, religion, gender, or disability.
  • Intentionally and repeatedly hurting someone physically.
  • Intentionally stalking someone.
  • Taking advantage of any power over someone else, like a prefect or a student representative.
Where bullying behaviour comes from is a much deeper issue and one that is often not easy to explain or pinpoint. Culture expert and organisational psychologist Joe Hart explained these complexities.

“How somebody is raised plays a huge role in the behaviours that are adopted at a young age. Albert Bandura’s research (Bo Bo doll experiment where children who observed someone attacking the doll were more likely to adopt the behaviour) suggests that individuals learn new behaviours by observing and modelling the actions, attitudes, and outcomes of others,” Hart said.

“Aggressive behaviour, in this case, has most likely been learned and adopted as a strategy to ‘win’ in life. In other cases, there may be an underlying personality disorder that is fuelling the aggression. When you combine a personality disorder with an aggressive environment, that’s when we can have significant problems.”

The “win” factor is something that was touched on in the initial research, intertwining aggressive behaviours with that of a competitive environment.

Aggression in competitive environments

There was a direct link made in the research that tied aggressive behaviours with trying to “win” in a competitive environment. The authors considered that the positive association between conduct problems and labour market outcomes meant that a reconsideration of discipline policies within schools needed to occur.

“It’s possible that our classrooms are competitive places and that children adapt to win that competition with aggression, and then take that through to the workplace where they continue to compete aggressively for the best-paid jobs. Perhaps we need to reconsider discipline in schools and help to channel this characteristic in children in a more positive way,” said Del Bono.

That adaptive response to a competitive environment is something that could enable children who have bullying or aggressive tendencies to continue that behaviour, especially if they are “winning” in the environment that they are residing in.

It’s then clear why these people who have shown that tendency at a young age have eventually gone on to be successful throughout their professional careers. Business is a cutthroat, competitive terrain where the characteristics of a bully often thrive and dominate.

If individuals have that adaptive mechanism of aggression to a competitive environment at a young age, then they will only continue to strive for the best possible outcome in certain situations, such as when competing for a partner or when negotiating status, as their life goes on.

“Those who have a higher drive to ‘win’ or are extremely competitive may succeed in a ‘cutthroat’ sales environment above their more relationship-oriented colleagues. However, I would caution anybody who places winning above the welfare of others. Their success may be short-lived if they don’t recognise the importance of the people in their network,” said Hart.

Hart somewhat echoed Del Bono’s sentiment in terms of reconsidering our approach to behaviours and attempting to channel individuals’ characteristics towards something more positive.

“As long as people are alive, there will be ‘brilliant jerks’ who are horrible at dealing with people but come up with the best products, ideas, or sales. Simply labelling people as ‘bullies’ is not helpful to them or anyone else. What is more helpful is identifying behaviours that you won’t stand for and honouring them,” Hart said.

“One perspective that may not be popular is that bullies are being ‘enabled’ by people around them. By this, I mean you may not be willing to terminate your best salesperson due to poor behaviour because you don’t want to lose the revenue they bring in.”

Enabling is a key theme across the report. We are trained from a young age to “win at all costs”, which creates those adaptive mechanisms that can embolden bullies and aggressors. Breaking down this mindset into more inclusive and positive disciplines is vital to dispelling that behaviour, which, at the moment, is rewarding later in life.