07/30/2015 05:46 EDT | Updated 07/30/2016 05:59 EDT

Bullies have higher self-esteem, social success study finds

Conventional wisdom has long suggested that bullies come from rough families, have low self-esteem, or harass others because they were once victims themselves.

But new research from Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C. suggests that many bullies may have higher self-esteem and social status than previously thought.

The study, led by SFU assistant criminology professor Jennifer Wong, suggests the tendency to bully may actually be hard-wired into our DNA.

"It may be that kids are impressed in some ways by some types of these behaviours, and that ends up making bullies benefit from these behaviours by being able to climb the social ladder," Wong told On the Coast's Stephen Quinn.

Wong conducted the study on a small group of high school students in Vancouver. She found that when compared to victims, bystanders and bully-victims (bullies who were once victimized themselves), bullies enjoy higher self-esteem, lower rates of depression and greater social success.

Born to be bullies?

Looking at the findings from an evolutionary psychology perspective, Wong says that since many human behaviours are innate tendencies that allow us to survive, bullying may be one of those inherent traits that lead to social advantages.

"Historically humans aggress for things to protect or stake out territory in order to defend against intruders, in order to try to attract the most successful mates and produce offspring," she said.

"So bullying may be more of a contemporary way of expressing those same kinds of desires."

However, individual differences could explain why some people are bullies, and others aren't.

Wong says her findings suggest schools should change the way they approach bullying prevention programs.

Rather than try to stop the behaviour, schools could expand supervised competitive activities so all youth can "demonstrate their prowess and establish rank in a safer environment that doesn't have victims."

They could also encourage bystanders to stop holding bullies in high regard. The less impressive or attractive the behaviour appears, the less people will engage in it, said Wong.

Listen to the interview: SFU study suggests bullying is in our genes