Photo by: Purwo Kuncoro

The Evolution of the Mean Girl

Did female competition lead to covert aggression?

Photo by auremar

Photo by auremar

It isn’t just characters in films like Mean Girls and Heathers that backstab and gossip. It turns out that women may have evolved to do just that, according to a new article by Tracy Vaillancourt in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. She argues that women use indirect aggression to remove the threat of sexual rivals.

“Women do compete, and they can compete quite fiercely with one another,” said Tracy Vaillancourt, the paper’s author and a psychology professor at the University of Ottawa in Canada. “The form it typically takes is indirect aggression, because it has a low cost: The person [making the attack] doesn’t get injured. Oftentimes, the person’s motives aren’t detected, and yet it still inflicts harm against the person they’re aggressing against.”

It has been shown in many cultures, that while men often use physical aggression to deal with competition, women will more likely use indirect aggression to handle perceived threats. This led to Vaillancourt’s idea that there must be an evolutionary component to the cattiness and backbiting that occurs between women.

Anne Campbell, an evolutionary psychologist at Durham University in the United Kingdom, believes that because of the importance of women’s bodies for the creation and care of children, they have evolved to use words instead of sticks and stones to settle conflicts. This type of fighting poses less physical threat, therefore insuring the ability reproduce.

While men also use this method, social exclusion and gossip dealt a bigger blow for women in the past, who relied on other women to help with raising children. Being accepted was a matter of life and death. Vaillancourt says that because of this, women have evolved to be highly sensitive to catty remarks and putdowns from each other.

Undergoing social attack and ostracization can leave women’s self esteem in tatters, which can chase them from the dating pool all together. As if that wasn’t bad enough, some men will find the offended woman less attractive, purely because he has heard unfavorable gossip about her. So clearly, this indirect aggression can work to keep the competition at bay.

Vaillancourt mentions that studies in many countries have shown that women trash-talk each other for being “too sexually available.”

“It’s women who suppress other women’s sexuality,” says Vaillancourt, discussing how the value of sex is seen to decrease if it is too readily available.

Not surprisingly, women who are not heavily attached to dating or who have passed their sexual prime, no longer use such tactics to compete for men. When something has become less valuable, women have no need to compete over it, says Vaillancourt.

Kim Wallen, a psychologist at Emory University in Atlanta doesn’t believe that Vaillancourt’s claims hold up. There have been studies on this topic  “none of which contain data showing that indirect aggression is successful in devaluing a competitor,” says Wallen. Calling Vaillancourt’s article an opinion piece, she says, “Sadly, no empirical data are ever presented that are relevant to the central claim.”

Sources: LiveScience and the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.

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