This is the third post in the series, provoked by the fact that dozens of studies about indirect aggression among adolescents and young adults exist, but the one the media chooses to popularize is wimminz being bitchy. And not only that. As I pointed out in the first post of this series, the article that is NOW being popularized came out in 2011. -- The first post of the series can be read here, the second post here.
This post talks about the 2011 article* by Tracy Vaillancourt and Aanchal Sharma, titled "Intolerance of Sexy Peers: Intrasexual Competition Among Women," because that is what John Tierney in the New York Times, Claire Suddath in the Business Week and Olga Khazan at the Atlantic Monthly website chose to speak about in 2013.
Let's begin by looking at the theoretical framework Vaillancourt and Sharma pick for their study. This is very important, because it turns out that the framework consists of two bits which don't fit together very well, even though they are used at different parts of the article to explain various findings:
The Two Theories
The authors begin with the usual evolutionary psychology theory which I often capitalize as Evolutionary Psychology (EP), a rather simplistic hypothesis about how prehistoric humans might have behaved a long time ago to maximize (not intentionally, but by evolution "selecting" for those behaviors which were most likely to let a particular person pass his or her genes on) their chances of leaving offspring.**
This is then supplemented with the assumption that the "winning" sexual adaptations are still "hard-wired" in our brainz, what with the further assumption that evolution in something of that sort could not possibly have taken place more recently than in the distant Pleistocene. We have Stone Age brains, my dears, and it is those stone age brains which explain how very young Canadian or US undergraduates compete against other people of the same sexual preference for the attention of the object of their desires.
Human mating has very little flexibility, from this view. And because that is what is assumed, current forms of mating behavior among contemporary humans are examined for evidence about how they might have been successful sexual adaptations in the prehistory.
It is such a simplistic model that the authors pick up first; the view that prehistoric men would have preferred young and attractive women as their mating partners because attractiveness is assumed to measure health and youth guarantees the maximal number of children for the men. Usually the EP version of this distinguishes between the search for a short-term sexual partner and a long-term sexual partner. Men are assumed to also value fidelity in their long-term sexual partners. This is crucial to in my critiques. Thus, it's worth pointing out here that Vaillancourt and Sharma drop it from the very beginning.***
This is what they state, instead:
Research on human mate preferences clearly demonstrates that males show a strong preference for young, attractive females [Buss, 1989; Buss and Schmitt, 1993; Grammer and Thornhill, 1994; Singh, 1993, 1994; Singh and Young, 1995]. In reaction to this predilection, females derogate rivals who imbue these qualities. Indeed, studies have shown that females are particularly intolerant of attractive peers, using indirect aggression against them at a greater rate than their less attractive peers [e.g., Leenaars et al., 2008].Thus, we are led to expect that their studies will be about female intrasex aggression aimed at especially attractive competitors.
But wait a second! The authors next add a completely different theory: The sexual cartel of all women which Baumeister and Vohr developed.**** Why is this particular theory used in the article? Perhaps because the results mostly fail to support the usual EP theory of female sexual competition? I have in mind the EP view that women would be most likely to compete against attractive young women because men prefer them and that women would also be likely to compete against attractive young and not-licentious women because that's what we are told men prefer for long-term dating purposes (or marriage).
A crucial point here is that Baumeister&Vohr argument is not an evolutionary psychology one. Thus, the authors use two different (and not necessarily consistent) theories both in the introduction to the studies and in the discussion of those studies. If one does that, there's almost always one theory which will fit some subset of facts! The other theory can be used to justify a different subset, if needed. But this is troubling when the two theories contradict each other.
Have I bored you enough already? All this matters, sadly. Here's what Vaillancourt and Sharma say about the sexual cartel theory:
In addition to being intolerant of physically attractive peers, we hypothesize that women are particularly intolerant of sexy attractive peers. According to Baumeister and Twenge , a double standard of sexual morality exists in which women ‘‘stifle each other’s sexuality because sex is a limited resource that women use to negotiate with men, and scarcity gives women an advantage’’ (p. 166). In their review of relevant literature, Baumeister and Twenge found support for their theory that females, and not males, suppress the sexuality of other females. Females accomplish this by ‘‘punishing’’ other females who seem to make sex too readily available ‘‘through informal sanctions such as ostracism and derogatory gossip’’ (p. 172). In other words, females used indirect aggression to suppress the sexuality of other females.
See the second post in this series for more extensive discussion of the review of "relevant" literature in the Baumeister&Tvenge article. For the time being, it is enough to note that Vaillancourt and Sharma have two basic hypotheses, derived from two different theories: The first one is that women will use indirect aggression more towards attractive rivals than unattractive rivals, the second one is that women will use indirect aggression to suppress the sexuality of rivals who appear to be available for sex.
Let's look at the two studies in the article in greater detail. They were both carried out on female heterosexual Canadian undergraduates, with the average ages in the two studies being twenty years and nineteen years. Very young subjects, in other words.
The First Study
The first study applies to 86 young female heterosexual and ethnically diverse Canadian college students. The women were told that they were participating in quite a different study, but while waiting for that study to begin, each woman was placed in a room with one other woman (either a friend or a stranger) and audio and video recorded while in that room. A provocateur then entered a room. She was picked on the basis of EP desirability (I find this part funny but it is important):
participants were exposed to an attractive, [...] 21-year-old Caucasian female confederate (independently rated as attractive by 20 female undergraduate students on a scale from 1 to 10, Mean7SE 5 8.670.25) who embodied qualities considered attractive from an evolutionary perspective [low waist-to-hip ratio, clear skin, large breasts; Buss, 1989; Buss and Schmitt, 1993; Grammer and Thornhill, 1994; Singh, 1993, 1994; Singh and Young,
In half the cases (A) she was "conservatively dressed." In the other half of the cases (B), she was dressed in a fashion that the authors denote "sexy." Here are the pictures of the provocateur:
The total number of possible "conditions" in this study is four. Either the pair of study subjects were friends (known to each other before) or they were strangers, and each of those types of pairs saw either the conservatively dressed woman in picture A or the "sexily" dressed woman in picture B.
The provocateur's behavior was choreographed, so that she behaved in the same manner however she was dressed. She entered the room, took a few steps, asked where she could find the study experimenter. She then left with the experimenter, a woman herself.
The video and audio recordings of the pairs of women in the room covered the period of time when the provocateur was in the room and the time right after that. These recordings were then examined in two different ways to find out if the reactions of the pairs of women differed on the basis of which of the two outfits the provocateur used and also on the basis of whether the women were friends or not. (The idea of using the latter aspect is that friends are more likely to express bitchiness to each other than total strangers.)
And what were the results? I'm sure that you can guess those. The reactions to the provocateur in the conservative outfit were nonexistent, the reactions to the provocateur in the "sexy" outfit were largely what the researchers call bitchy, and more so if the two study subjects in the room were friends, though the latter effect was minor.
There are three points worth making about this sub-study.
First, it is not about the EP theory at all, because the same woman, deemed attractive in EP terms, was used in all the conditions. It is about the Baumeister&Vohr cartel theory, though obviously quite different sociological or psychological theories could explain the same reactions.
Second, the authors mention an alternative theory that might account for the findings later in the article: The norm violation theory. They use the example of a clown entering a room like that. Because clowns are not expected in the university context, the reactions of the study subjects could well be due to the fact that the provocateur in the "sexy" outfit doesn't match our expectations about how people interacting with EP researchers or undergraduates might look. A surprise, in short, could explain the reactions. Vaillancourt and Sharma don't think that there is any good way of excluding the norm violation theory, because, introducing, say, a clown, in some conditions as a control would tell the subjects who see the clown that there is something fishy about the whole project.
Indeed. But the fact remains that the role violation theory could explain the observed reactions.
Third, this sub-study does not support the idea that heterosexual women's indirect aggression is most likely to be aimed at an attractive rival, because the provocateur was the same woman in all cases. But note the near-absence of any reaction to the conservatively dressed variant. If men indeed value not only youth and attractiveness in their long-term sexual partner but also fidelity, the conservatively dressed provocateur should have elicited bitching from the study subjects, right, as a form of competition for long-term mates? That she did not, and given that the "conservative" dress looks to me like the usual uniform for students, the case for the norm violation explanation is strengthened.
The Second Study
The second study, using 66 ethnically diverse women, all recruited from a university setting and with an average age of nineteen, continues the use of the provocateur from the first study. This time she is present as only photographs, the two shown above as pictures A and B, and a third one, picture C, which is a photo-shopped version of the provocateur in picture B., to make her look obese. Here is picture B together with the photo-shopped picture C:
These three photographs were given to three separate groups (women in one group got picture A, women in the second picture B and so on). The study subjects were asked to rate the attractiveness ("cuteness") of the woman in the photograph they were given, and also asked to rate her "sexiness." They were then asked whether they would introduce the woman in the picture to their boyfriends (real of imaginary), whether they would let the woman spend time alone with that boyfriend, and, finally, whether they, themselves would like to befriend the woman in the picture.
The results? The woman in picture A was rated the most attractive. This is the conservatively dressed thin version of the provocateur from the first study. The woman in picture B (sexy-thin, as the researcher call it) was rated the sexiest, while there was no discernible difference in the ratings of photographs A and C.
The sexy-thin woman (B) was the least likely to be introduced to anyone's boyfriend or to be allowed to spend time with him alone. The conservatively dressed thin woman (A) was the most likely to be deemed as someone the study subjects would like to befriend.
Anything Echidne wants to complain about in this context? You bet! Why only photo-shop one picture, to end up with three?***** What is the logic behind that?
It would seem obvious to me that if the researchers wanted to introduce a fatness aspect to the study (based on the EP assumption that men don't like fat women), then both pictures A and B should have been photo-shopped fatter. Why is there no picture D, showing the conservatively dressed version as fatter?
This is such an odd omission that I can't quite get over it. Surely an additional twenty-two study subjects could have been found, to test all four versions of the pictures if a sub-sample of 22 was necessary?
My second concern is that the second study has introduced a version of the provocateur which does not abide with the mythical EP-dictated standards of beauty, with the ideal waist-to-hip ratio. The basic EP theory would suggest that she would be the one whom the study subjects would most eagerly introduce to their boyfriends, because she is less likely to appeal to them (in EP theory, that is). But this turned out not to be the case at all.
The researchers speculate that her signals of sexual availability were seen more of a threat here than her failure to match the mythical waist-to-hip ratio. But this is EXACTLY WHY the omission of picture D (with the conservatively dressed version made to look obese) is so troublesome.
Discussion in the Article
The discussion of these results in the article has inconsistencies. For example, this is how the researchers write about the EP theory of intrasex competition:
Although the ultimate reason women derogate rivals is unknown, we strongly suspect that the use of indirect aggression by human females is rooted in evolutionary history. It has been noted in the nonhuman animal literature that female reproductive competition is most intense within species in which males invest heavily in their offspring (with some exceptions see Clutton-Brock, 2007]. In humans, males are invested in their offspring, albeit to a lesser extent than females, and because they invest they also tend to be selective in terms of who they mate with on a long-term basis [Kenrick et al., 1990]. This choosiness puts pressure on females to compete for the most desirable mates and the form this competition takes is often the derision of perceived rivals [Campbell, 2002; Vaillancourt, 2005].Bolds are mine.
Using an experimental design, results of Study 1 provide support for the hypothesis that women do engage in intrasexual competition and that the form it takes is indirect aggression.
Butbutbut. Note that men want faithful partners for long-term mating! The partner in the first study most likely to fit that bill is the conservatively dressed version of the provocateur. Yet she elicited essentially no bitching, which suggests to me that the above hypothesis was rejected by the study evidence.
The researchers then go on about the sexual cartel theory by Baumeister&Vohr. There are several alternative theories (better ones, in my view) to interpret the first study findings. The norm violation theory, say, seems credible.
In discussing the second study, Vaillancourt and Sharma again bring up long-term competition for mates:
Notably, women were also less likely to introduce the sexy-fat confederate to their boyfriend or allow him to spend time with her than the thin attractive, but conservatively dressed, confederate. It is clear from the research literature that larger women are not perceived by men as being attractive. In fact, studies consistently demonstrated that women with large breasts and a low waist-to- hip ratio are preferred by men for both short-term and long-term relationships [e.g., Singh, 1993, 1994; Singh and Young, 1995]. However, this finding is consistent with evidence that women are threatened by, disapprove of, and punish women who appear and/or act promiscuous [Baumeister and Twenge, 2002]. Recently, Griskevicius et al.  reported that for women, mating motives increased indirect aggression use, a finding consistent with Benenson’s  idea that human females constantly compete with one another to initiate and maintain a long- term partnership with a mate. The form this competition takes is indirect aggression. Across human history, females have relied heavily on the investment of males for the provision of resources and for the protection of themselves and their offspring [Benenson, 2009, p. 269]. Having a mate defect often indicates fewer resources for the woman and her offspring.
Bolds are again mine.
Note that the actual evidence is against the competition for long-term mates, because the most likely version of the provocateur to qualify as attractive, young and faithful (what men are said to want in EP) was the conservatively dressed woman in picture A, and she was not the one whom the study subjects were least likely to introduce to their boyfriends and the most likely to want to befriend.
The inexplicable absence of picture D makes it hard for me to say much more about the findings in the second study, though a certain type of concept of one's peer group might be working there, too. If the average woman participating in the study dressed like the conservatively dressed version of the provocateur (picture A), then that version might be the most likely to be invited to meet a boyfriend or to become a friend simply because of that type of similarity of expressed values or lifestyles. It would have been interesting to control for the study subjects' own clothing choices in the studies.
So what did these two studies tell us?
I would argue that they showed that young, undergraduate women at one Canadian university reacted negatively to the clothing of the "sexy" version of the provocateur in study one. Why that was the case is not, in my view, something that the article was able to prove, partly, because the "sexy" clothing doesn't look to me like the kind of "sexy" clothing a female undergraduate would wear in a place like a university or even more generally. We do not know what the study participants read into that clothing choice, and so we cannot really conclude what their motives might have been.
*The article is behind a pay-wall. The reference is Tracy Vaillancourt and Aanchal Sharma, 2011,
"Intolerance of Sexy Peers: Intrasexual Competition Among Women," Aggressive Behavior, vol. 37, pp 569-577.
**I regard these theories simplistic because they are. For instance, they almost always assume that a prehistoric man successfully passed his genes on if his sperm fertilized an egg, whereas a prehistoric woman had to carry the child to term, give it birth and then feed and care for it until the child, in turn, became a fertile adult who could continue the game. This simplistic argument is used to explain why men would naturally be more eager to have casual sex and many sexual partners and commitment avoidance (why bother?) than women.
The point I wish to make is that a fertilized egg is NOT a fertile adult of the next generation. Even for prehistoric men's offspring, someone had to go through pregnancy, childbirth and childrearing before the process was complete. Thus, men's ability to pass their genes on was still limited by women's ability to pass their genes on. The two were intertwined, unless we assume that women acted like some type of passive slot-machine: Insert sperm, a mature, fertile adult child pops out.
Suppose, say, that a pregnancy resulting from prehistoric casual sex left the pregnant woman on her own. Suppose, moreover, that a pregnant woman under these conditions was more likely to die due to the pregnancy or in childbirth or less likely to manage to feed the child to his or her adulthood. This could have meant that casual sex didn't produce the number of fertile adults in the next generation that EP researchers assume. Indeed, the "selection" for promiscuity in men (as opposed to preference for long-term mating) would have been reduced, because fewer men would have passed on their genes through casual sex than the EP lot assume.
The above is just one example of many, many similar omissions in the simplistic frameworks. They also usually fail to include the fact that evolution not relating to sex would also have had an impact on how successful prehistoric people were in passing on their genes, and that the different kinds of evolutionary forces probably acted simultaneously, and that the final outcomes might be hard to predict within one very simplistic model.
***In her 2013 review article Vaillancourt states:
Females attack other females principally on appearance and sexual fidelity because males value these qualities in their partners.The findings here contradict the latter quite clearly.
**** You can read my views on that particular theory, in excruciating detail in this series of posts (Post 1, Post 2, Post 3).
***** morf in comments to the first post in this series pointed out this problem, too.