Nov. 29, 2011 -- A new study finds women can be downright nasty when they don't approve of members of their sex.
The harsh reactions of 43 women to a provocatively dressed peer, caught on tape by Canadian researchers, reveal just how sassy women get when they think someone else is sexier.
"I was convinced, having lived a life as a woman, that we're not as pleasant as some people make us out to be," said Tracy Vaillancourt, professor of psychology at the University of Ottawa and lead author of the study published in Aggressive Behavior.
Vaillancourt invited 86 women to participate in a study on conflict resolution. But she was really interested in how the women would respond to a young female student entering the room wearing either a T-shirt and khakis or a low-cut top and mini skirt.
When dressed conservatively, the student was barely noticed. But when she dressed sexy, she drew snarky stares and mocking chuckles as she left the room.
"This is not something that sort of happened," said Vaillancourt, describing the consistently "bitchy" responses. "Ninety-seven percent of the women were inappropriate."
The inappropriate reactions were scored by 13 blinded raters on a "bitchy behavior" scale from zero to 10. The raters could only see the study subjects – not the female student.
Most of the women were passive-aggressive, making their disapproval known without actually stating it.
"We're not good at direct confrontation," said Vaillancourt, describing the silent treatment women are famous for. "By laughing as she gets to door, they're giving her feedback that they don't approve."
The two women who refrained from making judgmental jabs, Vaillancourt said, were "probably checking their BlackBerrys."
In a second study aimed at uncovering the basis for the "bitchiness," the researchers showed photographs of the same student dressed conservatively or sexy to 66 different women and asked whether they would let their boyfriends spend time with her. A third photo of the "sexy" student was altered to make her look overweight.
"When she was sexy and thin, they didn't want their boyfriends anywhere near her," said Vaillancourt.
Vaillancourt said while most women are guilty of giving attitude to sexy peers, few think about why. One theory for the brazen behavior suggests women ''stifle each other's sexuality'' to level the playing field.
"This idea assumes that men are willing to do whatever is necessary to obtain sex and will often do roughly the minimum amount that is required," Roy Baumeister, director of social psychology at Florida State University, wrote in a 2002 study published in Review of General Psychology. "This echoes the traditional grandmotherly advice against premarital sex, colloquially expressed in the metaphoric terms that a man who can get free milk will not buy the cow."
"When women present themselves as being sexually available, it compromises the power-holding position of the group," said Vaillancourt. It's in the group's best interest, therefore, to punish women who violate the unspoken rule.
But the theory, which is rooted in the evolution of women as a species, is unpopular among some women.
"I think it probably makes women feel like we're not in control of our emotions and behavior," she said. "But we have an old brain in a modern context."
The subjects in the study were between 17 and 28. But Vaillancourt said she plans to extend the research to include older women.
"Some people have said the reaction would be different among 50-year-olds," she said. "I disagree. If we had what you'd call a 'cougar' come through, I think she would be fair game."