By Swapna Venugopal Ramaswamy
In the 2004 cult favorite “Mean Girls,” 16-year-old Cady Heron, the central character and narrator played by Lindsay Lohan, declares: “In the Girl World, all fighting had to be sneaky.”
Now a new scientific review of nearly 100 evolutionary psychology papers appears to be supporting those pearls of wisdom—that women are hard-wired to be catty.
From Left, Lindsay Lohan as Cady, Amanda Seyfried as Karen, Rachel McAdams as Regina and Lacey Chabert as Gretchen in “Mean Girls.” Paramount Pictures.
“Indirect aggression”—otherwise known as gossiping, backstabbing and shunning—is a technique women have perfected through the ages, and have employed as an effective competition strategy, claims Tracy Vaillancourt, a professor of psychology at the University of Ottawa, in a report published in the Canadian journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B last month.
“Females prefer to use indirect aggression over direct aggression (i.e. verbal and physical aggression) because this … maximizes the harm inflicted on the victim while minimizing the personal danger involved,” according to the report. “The risk to the perpetrator is lower because he/she often remains anonymous.”
The findings of the study—that women use relationships to navigate life and get ahead—is nothing new, said Dr. Jennifer A. Powell-Lunder, an adjunct professor of psychology at Pace University.
“Whenever studies like this come out, we tend to make generalizations, and yes, women use relationships to get ahead,” said Powell-Lunder, a co-author of the book, “Teenage As a Second Language: A Parent’s Guide to Becoming Bilingual. “The survival of the fittest for men is based on physical prowess. Even in the businesses world, men who show they are fierce and strong with their voice and body language are revered. For women, it’s more about learning to negotiate systems through relationships to get where they need to go. And unfortunately, that has its negatives.”
Negotiating systems through relationships can sometimes get aggressive, a phenomenon psychologists describe as relational aggression—a.k.a. mean girl behavior.
The targeted women often feel “too sad and anxious to compete” theorizes Vaillancourt, the researcher.
“There are occasions when it feels like women are ruthless, but it’s not all women,” said Powell-Lunder. “If you are somebody who can use relational aggression, you can be quite successful, but it’s not the only way to be successful.”
Girls and women almost always use indirect aggression when it comes to competing with other females. In mixed company, they use it only 52 percent of the time, the research claims.
So what can girls who are at the receiving end of this behavior do?
“Most girls are used to this and they can take it. But if you are super sensitive, you should call people out,” said Powell-Lunder. “If you are hearing gossip or somebody is spreading rumors, you can pull them aside and try to make them see your point of view.”
Most times, this simple act helps, said Powell-Lunder, a clinical administrator on an adolescent inpatient unit in a private psychiatric hospital.
“Adolescents are ego-centric by nature, so it helps to make them see how it made you feel. And that often de-escalates the situation,” she said. “The majority of the kids will react and have empathy and compassion. There are the queen bees out there who do not do this, and they are the outliers.”
While some queen bees outgrow their attitudes, many keep their stripes, she said.
“What girls need to know is that it is good to use relationships to negotiate their systems,” said Powell-Lunder. “It is how you do it that matters.”