The Evolutionary Basis for Backstabbing

by Elizabeth Nolan Brown

Women and men both use "indirect aggression" in relationships—forms of aggression that are more passive than physical. But only women are accused of doing so because we've just evolved to be gossipy, backstabbing harpies. I'm referring to a report in The Daily Mail, tireless chronicler of women's inherent vanity, bitchiness and overall inferiority. A new study suggests that young women use passive-aggressive ways when vying for sexual partners. And in the capable hands of the Mail, this latest bit of evolutionary psychology is so outrageously sexist that it's (almost?) entertaining.

In the study—published in biology journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B—University of Ottawa psychology professor Tracy Vaillancourt looked at passive-aggressive behaviors such as spreading sexual rumors about someone, criticizing their appearance and social exclusion. "Human females have a particular proclivity" for these tactics, she concludes—an adaptation we allegedly developed because its "an effective intrasexual competition strategy."

Evolutionary psychologists see almost all human actions as the output of psychological adaptations that evolved along with our opposable thumbs. They say things like "mating game" and "peak reproductive value" earnestly. And if women are being nasty to other women, it must ultimately relate to the deep and almighty quest to keep them from stealing the sperm we have an eye on. Everything in ev-psych basically comes down to women's quest to get pregnant and then keep a mate and men's desire to spread their seed far and wide. Adjusting your pace to someone you're walking with? Reproductive strategy. Men have more affairs? Can't help it because EVOLUTION.

In a 2011 study from Vaillancourt, pairs of teen girls were interrupted by an attractive woman dressed either conservatively or in "sexy clothing." Young women who encountered the sexily dressed woman were more likely to say wouldn't introduce the woman to their boyfriends, wouldn't want boyfriends associating with her and wouldn't be friends with her themselves.

So the sorts of teen girls given to worrying over who their boyfriends hang out with are more wary of other girls dressed sexily than those who could be on their way to bible group. Was there any question that women (of any age) who see other women as competition will be more on edge around those wearing fewer clothes?

That doesn't mean women are inherently jealous and overly possessive. If anything, this article is evidence of the way some media outlets encourage women to believe other women have those characteristics. A few 15-year-old girls feel jealous in a situation designed to inspire jealousy, so women are biologically driven to undermine each other in their quest for a mate? Something's wrong with that logic.

But the Mail and Vaillancourt don't see that. As they see it, women act like Mean Girls all the time, and solely for reproductive advantage. Men do things for all sorts of reasons, but we are always thinking with our ovaries.

For the record, researchers have found "virtually no sex difference in indirect aggression," according to Duke University evolutionary psychologist Anne Campbell (who was not involved in this study). "By the time you get to adulthood, particularly in work situations, men use this, too."

In a 1999 study, Campbell published a paper on evolution, culture and women's aggression. In it she noted that part of why females may use indirectly aggressive techniques more often is that direct aggression on the part of women has historically "been viewed as gender-incongruent aberration or dismissed as evidence of irrationality." If confrontation were more culturally acceptable for women, mistrust and passive aggressive behavior might dramatically decrease. But then what would The Daily Mail cover?