The shaky field of Evolutionary Psychology has looked at the “mean girls” phenomenon, or, more or less, the culturally pervasive idea that “women are catty.”
The mean girls study is the latest high-profile study from the Evolutionary Psych (or “evo psych”) field, and one that draws predictably controversial conclusions about the possible evolution-related reasons behind “behaviors” in which humans may or may not engage.
Evo psych is considered controversial for reasons and methods far too long to list in this article, and io9 explored the discipline in a post earlier this year, reporting:
“Evolutionary psychology has often been a field whose most prominent practitioners get embroiled in controversy — witness the 2010 case of Harvard professor Marc Hauser, whose graduate students came forward to say he’d been faking evidence for years. Then there was the case of Diederik Stapel, whose social psychology work shared a lot of territory with evopsych. He came forward in late 2011 to admit that most of his data was sheer invention.”
Despite pervasive objection to much of the discipline’s presence, evo psych continues to bro on — with female cattiness its latest area of examination.
The behavior examined is described as “indirect aggression” aimed at sexual rivals — and is noted as present in both males and females overall. Used to narrow one’s sexual competition, a piece in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B looked at the various ways women allegedly behave as “mean girls” to elevate their status among both potential partners and rivals.
Tracy Vaillancourt, lead author of the mean girls study and a psychology professor at the University of Ottawa in Canada, said:
“Women do compete, and they can compete quite fiercely with one another. The form it typically takes is indirect aggression, because it has a low cost: The person [behaving aggressively] 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.”
LiveScience spoke to Anne Campbell, an evolutionary psychologist at Durham University in England. Campbell theorized other factors besides lack of detection were at play, and the site reports:
“Because of women’s role in childbearing and rearing, they are less expendable than men and couldn’t risk injury by settling disputes with their fists… Instead, social exclusion and talking behind someone’s back allowed women to work out conflicts without endangering their bodies.”
“There is virtually no sex difference in indirect aggression… By the time you get to adulthood, particularly in work situations, men use this, too.”
Vaillancourt told LiveScience that the mean girls research could have another factor contributing, in relation to “slut shaming” or “sex shaming.” Vaillancourt surmises that women who seek to shun females they perceive as sexual resent what they say is the lowered market value of available sex.