Evolution Explains Why Mean Girls Get the Guys

By Lisa Raffensperger | October 28, 2013 3:42 pm

mean girls

When it comes to choosing mates, the standard formula is that males compete to impress females. Female competition for mates tends to get less attention. But a new paper suggests that gossip and cattiness among adolescent girls serve as the female form of competition, and have evolved to increase a female’s sex appeal above her peers.

Girl-on-girl aggression definitely happens—anyone who’s lived through middle school (or seen the movie Mean Girls) can attest to things like excluding girls from a group, giving someone the silent treatment, gossiping or divulging secrets. The question is, do girls act this way to increase their social standing generally, or does it specifically make them more attractive as potential mates?

Sex on the Brain

The paper’s author, psychologist Tracy Vaillancourt, argues that the latter is true. Studies show that so-called indirect aggression is used more frequently by women than men, is usually directed at other women, and is most frequent in adolescence and young adulthood. These years correspond with women’s peak fertility.

In one lab experiment (pdf), women primed to think about going on a date were subsequently more likely to say they would socially exclude a woman who slighted them. Another experiment (by Vaillancourt herself) found that female participants were much more “bitchy” toward a sexily-dressed assistant than the same young woman in dowdy attire. Along the same lines, attractive adolescent girls are 35 percent more likely to be on the receiving end of aggression than their plainer peers, according to a survey of Canadian teenagers.

Mean Girls

Women may have evolved to engage in back-stabbing behaviors rather than direct aggression—eg, fist-fights or face-to-face insults—because of their mothering responsibilities, LiveScience explains:

Because of women’s role in childbearing and rearing, they are less expendable than men and couldn’t risk injury by settling disputes with their fists, said Anne Campbell, an evolutionary psychologist at Durham University in the United Kingdom, who was not involved in the work. Instead, social exclusion and talking behind someone’s back allowed women to work out conflicts without endangering their bodies.

For women, at least, the approach seems to work. Mean girls tend to date more partners, according to various surveys, and cattiness also effectively discourages potential rivals, writes LiveScience:

Not only does such cattiness make the targeted women too sad and anxious to compete in the sexual market, some studies suggest it can make men find rivals less attractive — provided the badmouthing comes from a cute woman, Vaillancourt said.

Image by prudkov / Shutterstock

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, select
MORE ABOUT: evolution
  • carolannie

    Bwahahaha….use a small subset of female behavior and bad test formulation, and then throw in some evopsych explanation and voila: whole TV series are explained, TV series written, incidentally, by men! Perfect! No discussion of how “mean girl” behavior is encouraged by mean boys! No explanation of how adult men and women are about equally “bitchy”! No definition of “bitchy”!

    I don’t think this one will be reproducible.

    • OkSeinfeld

      Many people are very unable to introspect and see the true motivations behind their actions, preferring to avoid the ugly truth. Convince yourself its someone else forcing girls to be catty all you want, its clearly ingrained behavior, as any male who has ever hung around with a group of girls can attest. This is such common experience as to be unsurprising. Women hate on others who dress provocatively to try to bring them down a peg. Its pure jealousy. Simple.

      • Amanda Peters

        Sorry but you are talking rubbish. Some girls might be catty but not all are. It might not have occured to you but everyone is different. Some people are nice some not so. As a woman ive never cared how other women dress. People can wear what they like. They can walk around naked for all i care. The behaviour mentioned in the article is not as common as people think. Just because you come across it doesnt mean its always taking place. The media are to blame as they like to highlight and exaggerate such behavior so making people think its the norm when it isnt. There was very little bad behaviour like this when i was at school. We mostly got on very well together both boys and girls.

        • Foulkeblows

          Of course not ALL are. We are speaking “generally”. It is VERY common for women to hate on each other. Your anecdotal evidence doesn’t change that fact

          • Betty Eyer

            But your anecdotal evidence does? I agree that the description of the studies sound really shaky.

          • tina

            Men prefer slutty women and they marry good girl and then back to slutty one…there will obviously be resentment. The resentment is mostly by women who are players ..as they grow older it gets worst

      • Andrew Martin

        LOL. Crap. You are a clueless outsider. Men are catty btw. Never heard/seen so much jealousy.

        Jealousy by women? You’re clueless. You don’t get what it’s like to be a girl/woman. I have been told by many they hate on others who dress inappropriately because of how it makes all girls/women look. Lowers the standard and encourages attitudes amongst men that are harmful to the daily wellbeing of girls/women. And how would men like it if other men dressed like that? Same nasty comments etc no doubt except men don’t have the added problem of constant harassment in society.

        Finally…the most popular girls/women I’ve known would NEVER be caught dead fighting over a guy or even think about other girls/women in the process of dating.
        It’s the weak, low self-esteem ones who are always into that stuff….and they’re usually always the ones that dress trashy btw… which might explain why they are criticized….and they are always badmouthing and starting rumours about the secure ones… Hmmm, it all ties together. Weak, insecure, desperate girls/women resort to nasty behaviour. Same goes for the boys/men.

        • Alan Bryant

          Sorry but if you are hanging around with catty dudes they probably aren’t the sort who are interested in females.

        • Cameron Treece

          Lmao… your first mistake was taking womens’ explanations for their behavior at face value. Only an extremely naive white knight would do that.

      • carolannie
      • tina

        not all are catty…its mostly the popular girls who are mean to others.They feel the world revolves around them cos of the male attention. They usually picks or girls who are fat or other goodlooking girls who are not in the game !!!

    • Morva Ádám

      I was with you until you started blaming men. Ha, talk about bad formulation and bias!

      • carolannie

        No, I don’t blame men, I just say they actively participate in creating the mean girl syndrome by rewarding mean girls

        • Eric_D_Read

          So you’d also agree that girls actively participate in creating aggressive violent men (like Chris Brown for example) by rewarding them?

          • carolannie

            i am sure that a group of women feel that their men aren’t real men unless they beat their women up. And I have heard some women say that they deserved the beating for being so bitchy.

        • Matt Houser

          The question is do men reward mean girls, or, are mean girls rewarded by the merit of their actions? That’s the real question here… Any perceived outcome can be attributed to any ingredient cause if you see fit to relate them. This doesn’t make the reasoning behind that association sound! I agree the experiment was not well controlled enough to produce any viable evidence of anything. Also, it’s fair to say a sexual motivation rooted in competition to reproduce could easily have the same core psychological cause that motivates women engage in it, and men to respond favorably to it… The desire to see a confident mate is obvious, our interpretation of “confident behavior” is really the x factor here, and explains girls who aren’t “bitchy” who’s interpenetration of confidence doesn’t include cruel behavior. Women who subsequently would likely not find a man attractive who saw this as an alluring trait.

          • Matt Houser

            To be clear, I’m not arguing this is healthy behavior, only that it’s core reasoning can be understood – and that there is no essential blame for men or women here, but rather the need to evolve beyond the mentality that aided survival in times when said behavior was useful and arguably necessary. The idea of “blame” is an after-the-fact argument which is obviously illogical in this conversation…

      • tina

        Men fight with fists when they are jealous and women spew venomous words when they are jealous..period

    • Patrick Goss

      You are hilarious. This experiment is completely believable, Obviously all the females here feel the need to defend yourselves, but this isn’t saying that ALL females are bitches, or that all successful females are bitches, its saying that SOME females use bitchyness to their advantage, and surely, this is true, otherwise ALL bitchy females would have been excluded from social groups and would have died off. Instead, we all know bitchy females, manipulative backstabbers who seem to hold some social advantage, a lot of my friends who show those qualities now have kids. It all makes complete sense to me, just as there are strong males stupid who would have killed off, smaller more polite specimens. Give your feminist rants a rest and read some science.

  • Ryan Rhea

    carolannie… are you, by chance, primed for dating at the moment? (Sorry, couldn’t resist) lol! BTW, I find you strangely attractive right now.

  • whatgoeson

    Maybe when people, men and women both, are a little mean, they’re maybe also a little more honest and direct, ‘hey, want to have sex’? Ok! Or, ‘NO, beat it!’ Maybe, people who are a little meaner, and a little less worried about what other people think, are more inclined to listen to themselves. What do I want, and does it really matter, honestly, what anyone else thinks or says?

  • Buddy199

    Because of women’s role in childbearing and rearing, they are less expendable than men and couldn’t risk injury by settling disputes with their fists, said Anne Campbell, an evolutionary psychologist at Durham University in the United Kingdom.
    Believe me, an evolutionary psychologist from New Jersey would come to a completely different conclusion.

    • neutrino

      Well, italian women are expendable.

  • Stel En

    does anyone really believe this evolution non sense. world is created by allah

  • Alan Bryant

    What it really comes down to is people, regardless of gender, who go after what they want have a higher success rate of getting it than those who don’t.

  • Olga Starcher

    Unfortunately, dating more partners does not automatically translate into settling down with a stable partner (you know, the kind of guy [or gal!] who’s not into having colleagues, friends, and friends’ spouses belittled by prospective mate). And setting down with a stable partner is kind of a big boon to that whole child rearing thing.

  • bob

    This explains a lot of high school DRAMA! hahahahahah

  • http://www.facebook.com/fdrossell Faith Denise Rossell

    exactly who is this written for? ridiculous

  • Patrick Goss


  • Nelson Guedes

    How about the explanation for why the mean guys always get the girls?

    • Ian Shaw

      All too easy: Evolutionarily the most dangerous threat every man faces on a near continual basis is other men. Getting between a testosterone laden guy and his mate choice is a good recipe for bodily injury and death. Every meeting between men subconciously and automatically generates a ‘do I go to battle stations or not’ element. ‘Mean’ behaviour is simply meant as an external signal that that participant has worked out this internal judgement in the affirmative.

      • Nelson Guedes

        I see your point, though that would make me feel like a devolved monkey throwing poop at another monkey. Was I not married, I would dedicate my life to science instead. Give me a lab coat any day!

        • Ian Shaw

          It’s really a bit more advanced than poo flinging, but it is clearly decended from that root.

        • Ian Shaw

          It also helps explain why ‘pretty’ women have a notoriously hard time ‘getting a nice guy’. Guys will subconciously generate two values on sight whenever they see a woman: 1) Am I interested? and 2) Would any other guy be interested? Any woman generating high marks on both values represents both big danger for ‘suboptimal interaction’ with other males, but big reward. It’s going to take an agressive male to hold that beach…

  • you

    hahahahahahaha true

  • tina

    Men always find catty and available women attractive. The only time men see plain or nice girls are when they are looking for wives in order to prevent impregnation of the woman by other men. They get back with thier women..what is so great about this research it s so evident..An ordinary woman has to endure all teh ridicule by the mean girls in school and uni and when she settles down , her husband goes with her…end of game

  • Sad

    Dumb And Dumber.

  • So Very Right

    Losers will stick with Losers, it’s a known Fact.

    • e.oliveira1975

      there is some truth in everything – and to that.

  • GreenLantern

    My experience of theseetypes of women is they don’t target attractive women they target the ones men are less attracted to anyways and also men dont listen to mean girl back stabbing. Infact they are wise to mean girl tactics and will talk about the girl or all the girls anyways. As for sexual market place many young men dont factor in other womens opinion of if they find them attractive. I can say for sure ive experienced mean girl hostility for not conforming to patriarchal beauty expectations, so its a bad reproductive strategy if thats what it is. Also the idea women dont use physical violence is a myth, yes they do and yes talking behind ones back can makes it more likley to recieve violence from a woman who has less to loose or even a man. I know ive thought of hitting mean girls myself and have actually done it at school. The reason its risky to do so as an adult is because of the law, women may have more to loose under the law so thats likley why women use this method. if anything nature is cruel, other female animals will attack each other and kill each others young and there is no reason why female humans would be any different if they could be. Women tend to fight my hair pulling etc, if anything this is probably more likley the evolved strategy. Ripping of the hair as a way to make the rival less attractive. Maybe really long hair indicates she has not had it ripped out yet.

  • GreenLantern

    Also the idea that younger women are worse, im not sure. I think older ones are worse for gossip and complaining about how younger women dress.

  • e.oliveira1975

    the pulse of the vern wood will teach you more of man/of evil and moral good than all the sages can. invariably, humans do not need much of a logical reason to ‘do’ anything, just an inclination. inclinations are instincts, that are tempered by the fool, the shrewd, the prude, and the wise.

    i think most of the conflict and evil exacted in the world – are merely the means by which men and women (both) try to demonstrate and designate themselves adults upon some stage.


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