It's … more focusing on trying to manipulate the social acceptance and self-esteem of others … and a lot of those behaviors, too, can happen behind the scenes. —David Nelson, an associate professor in the BYU School of Family Life
SALT LAKE CITY — Women can be aggressive toward those they see as competition.
While this idea may not be new, a new study published in the journal Aggressive Behavior says this behavior can be subversive and is prevalent.
Researchers Tracy Vaillancourt, a professor in the University of Ottawa school of psychology, and Aanchal Sharma, with the McMaster University department of psychology, neuroscience and behavior, conducted a series of studies to measure how women respond to those whom they see as competition.
Vaillancourt calls this sort of behavior "indirect aggression." It includes spreading rumors, ignoring, excluding or making "derisive body and facial gestures to make the rival feel badly about herself and thus less willing to compete," the study says.
Among other things, this research shows that "women do not hesitate to engage in relational or indirect aggression toward those who they perceive as either competition or those they perceive as well outside the norms," said David Nelson, an associate professor in the BYU School of Family Life.
Vaillancourt and Sharma point out the indirect aggression tends to seem safer for the aggressor because it is not as blatant as physical aggression.
"There's a tremendous amount of damage you can inflict at very little social cost or risk," Nelson said. "That's very safe of course because she's not there to respond. She's not there to even know that you're aggressing against her."
The study's authors noted that one of the study's limitations was it does not address the idea that the negative reactions could have been spurred because the woman was violating a societal norm, rather than that the woman was competition.
Nelson said the study shows that those who do violate societal norms could expect negative reactions from those around them.
This study builds on what researchers have talked about for roughly 20 years, Nelson said: "That aggressive behavior is certainly not something that is the sole domain of men. There's a lot of pressure that girls receive just from each other."
Nelson studies indirect, or what he calls "relational aggression." Most of his research focuses on preschool and middle-childhood-age children. In 2005, he and other researchers conducted a study that measured the ways in which preschoolers show this type of aggression, "sometimes at the expense of others," he said.
"It's more focusing on trying to manipulate the social acceptance and self-esteem of others and a lot of those behaviors, too, can happen behind the scenes."
"That just continues on into these later years and it becomes much more charged, I guess you would say, because of the whole sexual competition idea that is being promoted in (Vaillancourt's study)," Nelson said.
The main focus of the study revolved around the idea that from an evolutionary perspective, women feel compelled to compete for a man's attention by mocking those who they feel threaten their likelihood of securing or retaining their mate, because how they dress implies they may be more promiscuous.
It was conducted in two segments using college-age women. The first used subjects who were told they were being tested on the ways women handle conflict in friendships. The women were split into groups of friends and strangers, and secretly, through video and audio recordings, measured on their reactions to an evolutionarily attractive woman entering the room.
Experimenters ran the test with groups they termed to be "conservative" and "provocative." For the first, the woman was dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, with her hair in a bun. In the provocative group, the same woman wore a short skirt, a low-cut blouse and knee-high boots.
The women did things such as look the woman up and down and roll their eyes when she entered. Once she left the room, they would make fun of her, laugh or make comments about her sexual availability, the study says. In general, women who were with friends were more prone to criticize the provocatively dressed woman.
In the second study, researchers asked subjects to rank pictures of a woman on the basis of her "attractiveness" and "sexiness" on a scale of 1 to 10, as well as their likelihood — from 1 to 10 — of allowing her to meet or spend time alone with their boyfriend. They provided photos of the conservatively dressed woman from the first study, and the same woman dressed provocatively. In a third photo, the provocative woman's image was changed so she appeared to be heavy.
The women were twice as likely to say they would not introduce the thin, sexy woman or be OK if they spent time alone with their boyfriend than the modestly dressed thin woman and were also less likely to have the provocatively dressed heavier woman meet or spend time alone with their boyfriend.
These findings point out that guys are not alone in using aggression to retain their social status, Nelson said. The difference is that, at least in younger years, guys tend to rely on physical force while girls and women "tend to focus in on the relational or indirect aggression to get their needs met," he said.
This clears the way for earlier intervention into the negative behavior of young girls, he said.
"Once you see it that way, through that lens, then you could say: 'Wow. We really need to start doing interventions with girls just as much as we do with boys when it comes to aggressive behavior.'"