Though both men and women use such indirect aggression in relationships, women use backbiting to demoralise competition and take sexual rivals out of the picture, according to a Canadian researcher. “Women do compete, and they can compete quite fiercely with one another,” said Tracy Vaillancourt, a psychology professor at the University of Ottawa in Canada.
“The form it typically takes is indirect aggression, because it has a low cost: The person [making the attack] doesn’t get injured. Oftentimes, the person’s motives aren’t detected, and yet it still inflicts harm against the person they’re aggressing against,” she said.
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 UK, 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. However, Campbell told ‘LiveScience’ that backbiting and gossipping aren’t unique to women.
But these attacks are more powerful weapons against women, who, in the evolutionary past, depended on each other to raise children; so shunning could severely hurt a woman and her children’s survival odds. As a result, women may have evolved to be exquisitely attuned to such slights, Vaillancourt said.
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, she said. Vaillancourt published a review article on the subject in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.