Tuesday, November 26, 2013

I Feel Bitchy, Oh So Bitchy! Part One Of Posts About Research Into Women's Intrasex Aggression

What you need to do now is to listen to this song from the West Side Story!  Just replace every "pretty" with "bitchy."  It's hilariously appropriate for my topic.

Women's bitchiness. That's what the talking heads are talking about, including our very good friend John Tierney in the New York Times.   He never tires of his endeavor to find science stories about gender or women which reinforce his own stereotypes (sorta sexist guy he is, our John).  The same stuff:  scientific proofs of women's bitchiness, is also discussed in Business Week and on the Atlantic Monthly website.

And Echidne rolls around in her big (new!) desk chair, laughing sarcastically.  Why?

It's not because she doesn't believe that women compete with other women, including over sexual partners.  Men compete with other men over sexual partners, too.  Or more generally people, with various sexual preferences, compete with other people who share those preferences over potential love or sex partners.

And it's not because it wouldn't be true that women use indirect aggression more than men do (though not all women or all men and not in all social sub-groups), possibly at least partly because girls both get corrected for direct physical aggression more than boys when they are children,  and because physical aggression doesn't work terribly well for those who are not physically stronger than the object of the aggression (especially important for women who are usually not trained to fight, either).

Whether "bitchiness" in women, or female intrasex competition that involves indirect aggression, can be shown to be an evolutionary sexual strategy is a whole different kettle of fish and my second post will talk about that more.  The short answer, right now, is that the studies analyzing this tend not to pay attention to how female intrasex competition works in areas other than the search for sexual partners.  That lack should be easy to fix, you know, by just getting more female psychology undergraduates to look at pictures or stories of  a woman getting a better grade in an exam or a woman having more expensive clothes or a woman getting promoted at work etc.!!!  That old doing-careful-research-stuff.  Right now the studies focus on sex and so they can't say anything much about whether women are bitchy outside the field of sexual competition.

Let's return to the first topic I want to talk about in this series (at least two posts):

Why This Topic Right Now?
So I went to hunt for the explanation.  It turns out that the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society has a special number out on female aggression.  The issue has twelve articles, a preface and an introduction.  Out of those twelve articles (all with at least somewhat interesting contents) one is pulled out to be popularized.  That one talks about bitchiness (the researcher herself uses that term) and about sexy young women Behaving Badly.  The others don't have quite the click-magnetism that might be needed.  For instance, one talks about reproductive competition in both sexes but gives stuff about other animals mostly, duh.

I may have already answered my question, in terms of the selection from that list of twelve articles.  Tracy Vaillancourt's article, the one favored for popularization, is about bitchiness and sex:

Indirect aggression includes behaviours such as criticizing a competitor's appearance, spreading rumours about a person's sexual behaviour and social exclusion. Human females have a particular proclivity for using indirect aggression, which is typically directed at other females, especially attractive and sexually available females, in the context of intrasexual competition for mates. Indirect aggression is an effective intrasexual competition strategy. It is associated with a diminished willingness to compete on the part of victims and with greater dating and sexual behaviour among those who perpetrate the aggression.

More about that in my second post.  For the time being, all that you should know at this point is that Vallancourt's piece is a review article.  It does not report new research.  Some of the other articles do.  So the reason for its wide popularization is not that the article produces brand new evidence.  Indeed, the bits the linked popularizations talk about come from a 2011 article by Vaillancourt and Sharma.  So I will talk about that research paper in my later post, too.

Let's summarize what we have, so far:  An issue about female aggression contains twelve articles, some of them discussing new research.  Out of those twelve, one is plucked for popularization and then used to discuss a 2011 article.

I find all this fascinating!  How the wheels within wheels work.

The second point I find fun about this presentation are statements like this (from the Vaillancourt survey article):

When comparing mean levels of direct forms of aggression, which includes physical aggression, there is a clear and pronounced sex difference favouring males across the lifespan [22,23]. When comparing sex differences in mean levels of indirect aggression, there is a slightly higher rate found among females during childhood, adolescence and adulthood [22,23]. Importantly however, when examining the proportion of engagement in this type of aggression, research demonstrates that females preferentially use indirect aggression (e.g. 52% for girls versus 20% for boys in 15-year olds; [24]) over all other forms of aggression. When girls and women aggress against others, they almost invariably use indirect aggression.

That's from the early parts of the article, and something that it glides over, pretty smoothly, which may be understandable because the point of the article is to talk about women's aggression against women.  But note the first two sentences.  Males have more physical aggression and an almost as high level of indirect aggression.  The way the popularizations of the Vaillancourt piece has been done obscures that setup completely.  It's about Mean Girls.

And of course there are Mean Girls, just as there are Mean Boys.  But the latter do not attract a lot of attention from the popularizers.  It's weird to read the first sentence of the 2011 Vaillancourt and Sharma article, from that angle

Intrasexual competition among males of various species, including humans, is well-documented [Archer, 2009; Daly and Wilson, 1988; Darwin, 1871; Geary, 2010; Wilson and Daly, 1985].

All that may be well known.  But it is not a topic for popularizations, is it?   I looked at quite a few recent articles on male intrasex competition and couldn't find them discussed in the popular media.

So what's the point of this post:  I hope it showed some of the hidden decision-making that goes into the question what to popularize for the general public.  I also hope that it might show how the popularizers are led to look at the question a bit one-sided.