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Is competition between women a bad thing?

Published: Sunday, Jan. 19 2014 3:15 p.m. MST

Several studies show that women exhibit greater amounts of indirect aggression toward others. A look at why this may be and what can be done to change it.

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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.

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