He argues that though this and other studies show how important physical appearance is to the way women respond to each other, there’s too much cultural baggage at play to say it all comes from our primate ancestors. The short-skirt-boots combo, for example, is already a “meaning-laden image,” he said.
In her own recent research, Anne Campbell, a psychologist at Durham University in the U.K., argued that young women tend to use indirect aggression to a greater extent than young men, in part because that’s the most socially acceptable way for women to compete.
But even Campbell stresses that it’s hard to tell whether this phenomenon is evolutionarily or culturally driven.
And it's not like men don’t attack each other when competing for scarce resources, too.
Before age 7, Fuentes said, boys and girls are equally directly aggressive. But after childhood it becomes less acceptable for girls to give each other noogies and the like, so women become far more indirectly aggressive (or “bitchy”) while men continue to be plain old directly aggressive. But by the time people reach working-age and beyond, Fuentes said, levels of indirect aggression between the sexes even out.
“At 15, you can engage as a male in direct aggression without too many repercussions,” he said. “But at 25, you're in jail.”
In fact, Buss has found that men “bitch” about their rivals, too—they just tend to insult their lack of money or status, the things women traditionally have valued in mates, rather than their physical appearance. They don’t slut-shame as much, Buss argues, because women will still date male “sluts.”
“Men derogate other men on things that women value [cues to protection and cues to resources and status], and women derogate other women on things that men value [sexual fidelity and physical attractiveness],” he told me.
Studies based on undergraduates are often denounced for not being representative of real life, but in this case, the age group is actually quite valid. The news is filled with stories of college and teenaged women feeling shamed after being sexually assaulted or even committing suicide after being called “whores” by their peers.
So, can we do anything about our bitchy tendencies? Despite his skepticism about it reflecting on evolution, Fuentes said the study was interesting because it showed that indirect aggression is very real and can be stimulated with just an image.
“These social constructs are real for us,” Fuentes said, “But we can change it.”
Cattiness is damaging to the self-esteem of the victims, but Vaillancourt argues that by becoming more aware of it, we can try to suppress it.
“Studies show that if you change cognition, you change behavior,” she said. “This behavior causes harm. People become depressed if they're attacked in this way.”
Buss is not as optimistic, saying that it's not easy to change something that might, whether through evolution or conditioning, have become reflexive.
He said curbing the bitchiness is one area in which men can be a help, rather than simply the object of the competition.
“The only way it might change is if men stopped valuing sexual fidelity and physical attractiveness in long-term mates,” he said.
“That’s unlikely to happen,” though, since “these evolved mate preferences in men are as 'hard-wired' as evolved food preferences for stuff rich in fat and sugar.”
Human nature can be such a bitch.