Most of us love to spill the tea with our friends. As one evolutionary psychologist puts it: “Gossip is what makes human society as we know it possible.”
But to what degree is gossip used as a weapon by women? It’s a question Florida State University researchers were interested in answering—particularly because social psychologists know a lot about the ways in which men compete with one another but not as much about the ways in which women do. (I suppose the movie Mean Girls doesn’t qualify as empirical evidence.) Their results were published recently in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
Historically, the study’s authors point out, women competed with one another to attract romantic partners and secure resources to help raise their children. Since women aren’t typically known for dealing with their issues in physical fights—emphasis on “typically”—researchers predicted they handle threats to their romantic interests by selectively sharing information about their rivals. They conducted five separate studies to test this theory.
In one experiment, for example, female participants were shown a photo of an attractive woman and asked to imagine that she had recently joined their group of friends; half, however, were also told that the woman had been flirting with their boyfriends. (Uh oh.) Participants were told juicy details about the woman: some were damaging to her reputation (for example, that she has an STD and cheated on her last boyfriend) and some were actually uplifting (such as the amazing fact that homegirl spoke four languages). The participants were then asked to rate how likely they were to pass along the things they’d heard to other people.
If you’ve ever watched any teen drama, you may not be surprised to learn that the participants in the study who thought the fictional woman had flirted with their romantic partners were more likely to spread the negative info they knew about her than the positive info. Furthermore, they were also more likely to share that damaging information if they were characterized as highly competitive.
Researchers also confirmed that being physically attractive and dressing sexily come across as a threat to other women. In another experiment, participants were shown photos of conservatively dressed “Francesca” and provocatively dressed “Francesca.” Guess which subject they were more likely to spread unflattering gossip about? Yep: Sexy Franny.
The study’s authors conclude that, “the current findings aid our understanding of the nature of women's competition and suggest that antiquated stereotypes of women as passive, docile, and non-competitive are likely overstated. Rather, the data presented here suggest women are actively competitive and use social information as their weapon to undermine rivals.”
Tania Reynolds, the lead author on the study and now a postdoctoral researcher at the Kinsey Institute, said in a statement that she hoped her findings can help facilitate conversations about women’s value.
“I hope we can create a new form of success for women that has nothing to do with whether they have romantic partners or whether they’re physically attractive,” Reynolds said. “If we reduce the emphasis on competition for romance and better appreciate that a woman does not need a man to be successful, if we change our view of what it means to be a successful female and stop focusing on questions like, ‘Am I attractive to men,’ maybe that would reduce gossiping, make women feel more secure in themselves, and place more value on other qualities, such as intelligence or kindness.”
After all, ladies, we can accomplish amazing things when we support each other.