Mean Girl Behavior Is the Norm, Science Says

Mean Girl behavior is an evolutionary trait, a researcher says. Photo credit: Getty Images.

A new scientific review of nearly 100 evolutionary psychology papers claims that women are hardwired for cattiness.

Writing in the journal, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B., Tracy Vaillancourt, a professor of psychology at the University of Ottawa and lead author of the research analysis, maintains that gossip, back stabbing and shunning have evolved as effective ways for women to maximize the damage to their intended target while minimizing the dangers to themselves.

Translation: Women use trash talk as a safe way to take down their sexual rivals.

"On the one end of the spectrum, women use mild forms of indirect aggression to convey what they want so there is a lot of guess work to figure out what you did wrong," she explained. "At the other end of the spectrum, they spread rumors behind your back and destroy your reputation."

Kim Wallen, a psychologist at Emory University, said he had reviewed the analysis and is skeptical of Vaillancourt's views.

"Her work comes across as more opinion than review," he said. "She cites no empirical data to back up her claims."

Wallen said that Vaillancourt does not use a single statistic to support her theory and that many her references are also highly speculative.

Vaillancourt counters that the research is clear: Women are biologically programmed to perceive women who are younger, prettier or more desirable to potential mates as threats. To diffuse a threatening rival, women tend to employ passive aggressive behaviors. So rather than lift a finger, a woman will wound her opponent with contemptuous glances, unkind words and petty remarks.

Men, on the other hand, seem programmed to use direct aggression techniques like shouting and physical violence to defend their social turf, Vaillancourt said.

"They practice indirect aggression too but their repertoire is greater and they use a variety of aggression modes to express their feelings," she noted.

Also, when men are the victim of a gossip attack they are often oblivious, Vaillancourt said the research showed. Even when they do pick up on the signals, they're likely to let any negativity roll off their backs. She said that this is in contrast to women, who are exquisitely tuned into damaging secrets and whispers.

Vaillancourt said that in the studies she reviewed, women demonstrated a far greater physical and psychological response to nasty rumors than men do. Female gossip targets frequently reported having elevated heart rates and feelings of anxiety and depression.

Although many women don't like to hear it, Vaillancourt said that passively vicious behavior is widespread and universal. And she said this should come as no surprise to most women.

"Unless you live in a cave, I cannot believe there is any woman on the planet who has not engaged in this kind of behavior, experienced it directly or witnessed it as a bystander," she said.

So what do you think? Ever witness a Mean Girl in action? Have your own claws ever come out in a fit of jealousy? Leave your least catty comments below.