The Self-Protection Hypothesis

None of us are keen on bullies and we empathize with the bullied and try and console them. At least that’s what we see in an ideal world. Things don’t always work out like that and the subject of the bullying may subsequently strike out at some innocent bystander.

This behavior is not restricted to kids in a playground, but occurs with non-human primates such as apes and monkeys. The question of the moment is what is going on in the mind of the sympathetic bystander? Just empathy or what? Schino and Marini in the latest issue of PLoS ONE have watched a large group of mandrills and logged the behavior in post-aggression situations (1).

Mandrills are not widely known for showing lots of empathy, but one never knows. The study showed that after a higher-ranking adult was aggressive to a monkey, some bystanders would show consolation behavior.

After a great deal of watching it seems that empathy was not the main reason, neither was it the action of peacemakers related to the aggressor. The main reason was to avoid the subject of the aggression passing this on to the bystanders.

Those most likely to show the sympathy were the ones most likely to be the subject of the ire of the original victim. That is, the response is best understood in terms of the self-protection hypothesis that suggests that if you show some empathy, you won’t be bullied in turn. I guess that’s a wise move, especially if you find yourself at the wrong end of the pecking order.


Leave a Reply