Teens who are willing to exploit others for their own gain are more likely to be bullies and to have more sexual partners than those who score higher on a measure of honesty and humility. That's what a new study from a team at Brock University suggests.

A team including Brock associate professor of child and youth studies Anthony Volk had previously found that bullies had more sex.

They wanted to know: Was it all bullies, or just ones with particular personality traits?

In the follow-up, which was published last month in Evolutionary Psychology Science, they studied a comparison of different negative traits.

Would someone lacking empathy have more sexual partners? Someone with a short fuse?

As it turned out, the variable that could be correlated to having more sex was scoring low on a measure of humility and honesty. Someone who is arrogant and manipulative, and willing to be so, is more likely to have more sex, Volk's team found.

"That's really the only one that came up as being predictive of people taking this behaviour and using it to exploit others," he said. "It's also the trait that best predicts bullying overall."

They set up two groups: 144 older adolescents with a mean age of 18.3, and 396 younger adolescents with a mean age of 14.6.

They gave each a questionnaire about their sexual activity as well as likelihood of bullying.

Personality a bigger factor than gender

They found that regardless of gender, teens with low humility-honesty readings were more likely to bully and to use that bullying as a strategy to have more sex.

"Both adolescent boys and girls will use an advantage in power to impress and get opportunities to have sex with their desired partners," he said. "The best answer is that it seems to be driven by personality, not by gender."

The study has Volk and his team, including Daniel Provenzano of the University of Windsor, thinking about what can be done to curb teen bullying. He said it boils down to this:

How do you give someone with that personality trait an alternative way to achieve what they're achieving through bullying?

"So if you're trying to impress the opposite sex, if you're trying to impress your peers, you can do that by hurting weaker people to show off your power," he said. "Or in this system that we're trying to pilot … if you give them roles in the classroom that give them that dominance and visibility."

Volk said the team will be rolling out a test intervention in some Niagara-area schools in the coming year as part of an evaluation of kinds of interventions.

For younger students, that might look like being the door greeter at school, so everyone sees and acknowledges them on the way in.

"That's a way of meeting that arrogance, that self-centredness that underlies honesty-humility," he said.

"You still punish the bullying, but you have to recognize the same time that if you just say, 'Stop bullying – we're going to punish you,' and you can't catch them in the first place … you're saying, stop having the benefits of having sex and being popular and getting all the resources you want because we said so," he said.

"It doesn't work. So you have to give them an alternative that allows them to still get those same benefits without hurting other people."