Humans and Elephants: Poor Social Skills in Adulthood After Early Trauma


Studies into adult outcomes for children who are exposed to bullying, and, studies of young elephants who experience trauma via culling or relocation show that early trauma can impair social understanding in adulthood for animals and humans.

Research in two separate studies; one of adult outcomes of exposure to bullying by UK Warwick University and the other into social understanding of young elephants in adulthood by UK Sussex University, further the understanding of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and the long term affects of trauma.
Warwick University UK looked beyond the immediate effects of bullying to find consequences in adulthood for children who were exposed to bullying in childhood.

Published in Psychology Today, researchers investigated outcomes in terms of health, economic status and social relationships in early adulthood.

Trauma via bullying was found to be negative for the victim and the “bully-victim” – the victim who turned bully who proved to fare poorest of all and vulnerable to every kind of social inequality. Bully-victims were typically from deprived backgrounds, showed signs of poor emotional regulation, higher incidents of mental health problems and a lack of resources to deal with stress.

Despite the team adding a control for family economic hardship and childhood psychiatric disorders, the bully-victim remained the most likely to suffer from adverse consequences to childhood abuse during early adulthood including –

  • increased risk of diagnosis of a serious psychiatric disorder
  • a slow recovery rate from illness
  • difficulty in maintaining employment
  • difficulty in maintaining friendships and positive relations with parents
  • low economic status

Evidence supported a “dose-response effect” – the change in effect caused by different levels of exposure (or doses) to a stressor after a certain exposure time of being bullied for poor wealth and social outcomes.

Professor Wolke said,

We cannot continue to dismiss bullying as a harmless, almost inevitable, part of growing up. We need to change this mindset and acknowledge this as a serious problem for both the individual and the country as a whole; the effects are long-lasting and significant.”

Bullying is a fundamental concern for schools, parents, and policymakers alike. Interventions in childhood are likely to reduce long-term health and social costs for those affected by bullying in adulthood.

A first-time study into trauma in wild African Elephants has discovered that elephants suffer long-term consequences to their social understanding as a direct consequence of culling and relocation in early life.

The research by UK Sussex University published in the Frontiers in Zoology journal parallels findings in studies in human post-traumatic stress disorder.

The impairment from disruption in early life was found to lead to two negative consequences. Disrupted elephant populations suffered social impairment from the initial experience of witnessing the killing of elders in their family group, and then further trauma from losing the opportunity to interact and learn from experienced elders in the group.

Elephants live in complex social groups in which elders pass on successful patterns of behavior to younger individuals in the family.

In an experiment that saw 50 different recorded sounds that simulated calls from elephants of different sizes and ages (older and larger animals being more socially dominant) played to orphaned group and undisturbed elephant groups, orphaned elephants were seen to be unable to decipher different calls or decipher different levels of social threat.

Four key behavior were used to measure the responses of the elephant groups during the playback experiments –

  • occurrence of defensive bunching
  • intensity of the bunching response
  • prolonged listening
  • investigative smelling

The elephants from traumatized group of elephants were less successful in correctly recognizing the threat from unknown elephants or discriminating between callers from different age classes. They also failed to respond with the level of attentiveness required for the oldest callers, who represented socially dominant individuals.

Dr Shannon concludes:
Our results have implications for the management of elephants in the wild and captivity, in view of the aberrant behavior that has been demonstrated by traumatized individuals. The findings also have important implications for other long-lived, social and cognitively advanced species, such as primates, whales and dolphins.”

Responding to dominant individuals within the social hierarchy is essential to success within complex elephant societies. Elephants interact with hundreds of other elephants outside of their own families when roaming and feeding and suitable social responses prevent negative interactions.
Warwick press release: Far from being harmless, the effects of bullying last long into adulthood

Psychology Science: Impact of Bullying in Childhood on Adult Health, Wealth, Crime, and Social Outcomes.

Sussex press release: Orphan elephants less socially clued-up decades later, research reveals.

Frontiers in Zoology: Effects of social disruption in elephants persist decades after culling
Image credit: with thanks to AryP of RGB Free Stock