Could bullying be an inherited trait? Yes, say researchers at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada. Their new study suggests the behavior is not only genetic — that is, biologically hard-wired — it is also helpful in building social rank and sex appeal.

The new theory has one foot resting on the tenets of evolutionary psychology and the other on the plotline of Mean Girls. Evolutionary psychology suggests our minds are shaped by pressures to survive and reproduce. The biological need to persist, according to this theory, inspires both our high-minded acquisition of language as well as our low-minded envy of anyone more attractive than us. The traits or behaviors we possess have, over the centuries, increased our ability to survive and reproduce. A stone’s throw away is Mean Girls. which shows a high school queen bee (the most socially prestigious girl) acting out as the biggest bully.

Dr. Jennifer Wong, an assistant professor in the school of criminology, and student Jun-Bin Koh surveyed 135 teenagers between the ages of 13 and 16 from a Vancouver high school. They used the Olweus Bully/Victim Questionnaire, a standard survey for categorizing students into four classifications: bully, bystander, victim, or victim-bully. Questions asked how often students were “hit, kicked, or shoved” or bullied with “mean names, comments, or gestures.” One item requests students respond to the statement, “Other students left me out of things on purpose, excluded me from their group of friends, or completely ignored me.”

Once categorized, the students completed further psychological tests. The researchers examined the results for four key variables: depression, self-esteem, social status, and social anxiety. What they discovered would not surprise any of the mean girls out there.

The bullies, who comprised about 11 percent of the participants, had the highest social rank within the school. Their scores also reflected positive mental health in other ways, including high self-esteem and low levels of depression. While this small-scale study could not be considered definitive, Wong and her co-author say the results lend support to the theory that bullying is derived from evolutionary development.

“Bullying emerges from evolutionary development, providing an adaptive edge for gaining better sexual opportunities and physical protection, and promoting mental health,” they wrote in their conclusion. The pecking order, quite literal in the case of bullies, benefits those at the top.

Source. Koh JB, Wong JS. Survival of the Fittest and the Sexiest: Evolutionary Origins of Adolescent Bullying. Journal of Interpersonal Violence. 2015.