Mean girls: Scientists say women have evolved to be ‘indirectly aggressive’

Study published by the Royal Society explores the ways women compete with each other without resorting to violence

An authoritative study published by the Royal Society has explored the scientific basis for “competition and aggression” between women, and found that they have most likely evolved to be mean to one another.

Dedicating a whole journal issue to the theme and inviting international evidence from across disciplines, the research found that the “constraints of offspring production and care” meant that it favoured the female of the species to resort to low-risk forms of aggression.

Scientists said that since Darwin first put forward his theories on reproductive competition, extensive research has been done on how more expendable men developed larger body size, use of weaponry and ritualised displays of aggression.

Little work has gone into the equivalent for women, however, with studies more likely to focus on more direct reproductive traits such as mate selection.

“Despite a history of being largely overlooked, evidence is now accumulating for the widespread evolutionary significance of female competition,” the report’s authors Paula Stockley and Anne Campbell explained.

Writing in the introduction to December’s issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, they described their work as a first step in “a new expansion of interest in female competition”.

“Females compete for resources needed to survive and reproduce, and for preferred mates,” Dr Stockley said.

“Although female aggression takes diverse forms, under most circumstances relatively low-risk competitive strategies are favoured.”

The scientists added that they found “coalitions or alliances may reduce risk of retaliation” – a theory to explain why groups of women gang up on others – as famously documented in the 2004 Lindsay Lohan film Mean Girls.

Professor Campbell, an evolutionary psychologist at Durham University, nonetheless told the website LiveScience that while meanness has traditionally been seen as a female weapon, it can be used in just the same way by men.

“There is virtually no sex difference in indirect aggression,” Professor Campbell said. “By the time you get to adulthood, particularly in work situations, men use this too.”

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