Egalitarian Drives as a Response to Bullying


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What causes an egailarian drive? (photo by MDgovpics)

What causes an egalitarian drive? Photo by MDgovpics

Overlord or underdog?

Dr. Sergey Gavrilets has developed a mathematical model to explain the evolution of anti-bully sentiment, or “egalitarian drives” within groups.

This anti-bully sentiment can result in bystanders taking sides against the bully, which, in turn, may cause the bully to back down.

In an exclusive interview with Decoded Science, Dr. Gavrilets, who works in both the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and the Department of  Mathematics at the University of Tennessee, stated that he believes that “all social animals are hierarchical. Human hunter-gatherers are unique  in their egalitarianism.”  

Gavrilet’s model furthers the understanding of the variables that  encourage by-standers, or “helpers” to assist owners of coveted items resist bullies.

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Owner-bully Interactions and the Evolution of the Egalitarian Drive

The source of human’s desire for egalitarianism has variously been explained by evolutionary biologists as reciprocity, nepotism, group selection and punishment, yet the author notes that these explanations “run into problems in  explaining egalitarianism.”  Dr. Gavrilets believes  his model points to genetically-controlled psychology and may be hard-wired.

Gavrilets’ model demonstrates that when a bully challenges an owner for an object, certain conditions make it more likely a third party “helper” will  intervene on behalf of the weaker owner of the coveted item. Variables in the equation are: the desirability of the object, the size of the group, and the strength of the “pre-existing hierarchy.”  Possible outcomes are the bully taking the object without the helper or owner escalating the behavior, the owner escalating and the helper not intervening, or the helper and owner escalating, potentially overcoming the bully.

Gavrilets noted that a strong pre-existing hierarchy would mean “few dominant individuals get most of the resources leaving not much for the  subordinates. This creates more motivation for subordinates to try to change the  situation.” Newly-emerging hierarchies would not have as many parties interested in thawarting the bully.

Evolutionary Reasons for Helpers to Intervene

Gavrilet’s equation takes into account the benefit to the group as a whole, when the bully is not able to win possession of the desired object. As the author states, “Each observer of a conflict has an incentive in helping the poorer side” because if the underdog keeps the item, it becomes more likely that desired objects will be more evenly distrbuted throughout the entire group.

Over time, the model shows that while “groups never achieve complete equality and their strongest members continued to have fitness advantages. However there is a significant reduction in the number of successful bullying acts. The changes happen relatively fast on the time scale of thousands of generations.”  Gavrilet’s model explains the evolution of egalitarianism, or the egalitarian syndrome, within a measureable span of human history.

Bully Free Zone (photo by Eddie~S)

Can we predict anti-bully behavior in groups? Image by Eddie~S

Possible Implications of Egalitarian Syndrome

In human nations, the measure of inequality is referred to as the Gini Index.  Used by such diverse groups as the CIA and the World Bank, the amount of  inequality between people in nation states is assigned a numeric measure.  Gavilets admits his equation does not take into account for the effects of  culture, religion, history, political situations etc., but the equation developed by Gavrilets is a starting point to quantify and understand that uniquely human urge in smaller groups.

When asked about the implications of his research, the author noted that his research helps explain why people root for underdogs at sporting events.  The author also speculated that it is possible that “people might be more willing to accept political actions resulting in a more egalitarian distribution of wealth than politicians..are saying.” Dr. Gaavilet continues that the “good news is  that our kids are also hard-wired to resist being bullied and to help others who are the victims of bulling.” Tapping that innate drive may be the best way to squelch school bullies.


Central Intelligence Agency. DISTRIBUTION OF FAMILY INCOME – GINI INDEX. (2012). Accessed August 13, 2012.

Gavilets, S. On the Evolutionary Origins of the Egalitarian Syndrome. (2012). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Accessed August 13, 2012.

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