Saturday, November 30, 2013

I Feel Bitchy, O So Bitchy: Part Two of The Posts about Women's Intrasex Aggression: The Review Article

This is the second post in the series about how one particular idea became widely publicized when other studies about aggression do not seem to have the same eclat.  The first post sets the stage and can be read here.


This post is about the review article Tracy Vaillancourt wrote.  Though the popularizations decided not to talk about that one but about her 2011 article with Aanchal Sharma (to be covered in the third post of this series), the review article is worth looking at in itself.

To begin with, it's crucial to realize that someone reviewing a particular field may review all articles in it, the articles regarded as most generally accepted or the articles the reviewer believes are the most important.  Things are more complicated when some topic is studied by several different disciplines.  For instance, reviews by evolutionary psychologists may only cover studies by other evolutionary psychologists, not studies carried out about the same topic in a neighboring discipline.

This can bias the impression one gets.   Now, none of this is intended to apply to the particular review article I talk about here.  It is just something readers should keep in mind when reading various reviews.

Bitching as a Sexual Adaptation in Humans (Especially Human Females)

Let's get going.  Vaillancourt's article has a thesis.  It is expressed in the first few paragraphs:

The study of sexual selection among human females has primarily focused on two competition strategies used to attract mates: (i) self-promotion and (ii) the derogation of rivals. Self-promotion involves epigamic displays of physical attractiveness such as wearing make-up or sexy clothing to attract the attention of a potential partner [1–7].
The derogation of competitors involves making a rival seem less attractive or less appealing to members of the opposite sex [7,8], which is typically achieved by disparaging the competitor’s appearance or by spreading rumours that question the fidelity or level of promiscuity of a rival [2]. Females attack other females principally on appearance and sexual fidelity because males value these qualities in their partners. Indeed, research on human mate preferences has clearly shown that males have a strong preference for young, attractive females [3,6,9–13] who are not licentious [9,14].
The derogation of rivals bears a striking similarity to what developmental psychologists have termed ‘indirect aggression’ [15–17], which is also known as ‘social aggression’ [18,19] and ‘relational aggression’ [20,21]. Indirect aggression is circuitous in nature and entails actions such as getting others to dislike a person, excluding peers from the group, giving someone the ‘silent treatment’, purposefully divulging secrets to others, and the use of derisive body and facial gestures to make another feel self-conscious. Interestingly, indirect aggression also includes behaviours that have been shown to be used by women around the world when attempting to reduce the mate value of a competitor—criticizing a competitor’s appearance and spreading rumours about her sexual behaviour [9]. Although developmental psychologists have tended to not conceptualize females’ use of indirect aggression as an intrasexual competition strategy, the central thesis of this paper is that it is an effective approach that is used primarily and ubiquitously by girls and women when they are at the peak of their reproductive value.

Note that the article does not begin with general intrasex aggression in women or girls (though the title of the article might suggest it does).  It begins from sexual selection and then moves to indirect aggression (derogatory comments, say) as a sexual strategy.  Thus, the rest of the piece tries to force pretty much all female intrasex aggression into the sexual competition mold, at least among young women.  

I believe this is a mistake, because it makes us not notice that young women can be aggressive not only towards young women but towards young men, old women and old women.  Even towards walls etc, just as is the case with all human being.  And my guess would be that indirect aggression is pretty common in most of that  after age six or so (though not in all cultures).   The reasons for that (assuming my guess is correct) can be debated, but I certainly know very few cultures where girls are encouraged or trained to duke it out, and I have read that girls' direct physical aggression is punished more than boys' direct physical aggression.

Does that make sense?  Professor Vaillancourt argues that bitchiness is a reproductive strategy for women (though she has argued in an earlier paper with Steven Arnocky that bitchiness also seems to be a reproductive strategy for men*).  I'd argue that bitchiness is a human aggressive strategy, used by both men and women, though not perhaps to the same degree, and that this particular aggressive strategy can be turned towards all sorts of objectives.  Only one of those is mate-guarding, i.e. discouraging rivals from attracting or stealing one's sexual partner.  It may well be the case that sexual competition is the salient form of competition for young men and women.  But indirect aggression (bitching) can be used by both at older ages for different uses, such as getting promotions at one's place of work.

I could be wrong, of course.  But it seems premature to assume that indirect aggression is just a sexual strategy when clearly it is being used for zillions of other purposes.

The Drive For Extreme Thinness Is An Evolutionary Adaptation Gone Bad

That is the first point I wanted to make about Vaillancourt's review article.  The second point partially follows from that.  After explaining to us that young heterosexual men rate facial attractiveness and youth very highly in their mates (Indeed, research on human mate preferences has clearly shown that males have a strong preference for young, attractive females [3,6,9–13] who are not licentious [9,14]) she argues that attractive women or girls are more likely to be the objects of bitching by other women or girls, and that this is logical, given that young heterosexual men prefer the babes.

I'm not convinced that this is true, if forms of verbal bullying and teasing are included in the kind of bitching the article is reviewing.  This is because the most likely targets for bullying are not the attractive cheerleader types or the school athletes (using US stereotypes) but teenagers who are seen as "different" in some important ways.

But suppose it is true.  Then we have a thesis that heterosexual women should compete with other heterosexual women in those characteristics that heterosexual men value.

Remembering that point, let's see what Vaillancourt says next:

Most studies examining links between attractiveness and derogation, discrimination and aggression have focused on facial beauty. Thinness is also a marker of attractiveness in females, in large part because a thin figure is associated with youthfulness [11,35,48], and hence greater reproductive value. Cross-cultural evidence supports the notion that a thin body shape is perceived as attractive, especially by women who reside in high-socioeconomic regions around the world [49]. The fact that girls and women value thinness more than boys and men [49] suggests that the drive to be thin is likely motivated by intrasexual competition [48,50 – 55].

Vaillancourt then continues to argue that eating disorders etc. are a consequence of intrasex female competition for the attention of men (for straight people, anyway).  But I don't want to continue with her, because there are three extremely  worrisome points in that quote.

First, note this sentence:

Thinness is also a marker of attractiveness in females, in large part because a thin figure is associated with youthfulness [11,35,48], and hence greater reproductive value.
But this is an odd amalgamation of evolutionary psychology stuff (reproductive value) and something which has shown very clear historical changes:  Thinness** was not a valued characteristic in women (or men) until quite recently.  Think of the women in Rubens' paintings.  Think of the average weight of the winners of the Miss America competition over the years.  Think of the way the old masters painted Jesus as an essentially overweight baby.

My point:  Perhaps thinness now denotes attractiveness in women in certain parts of the world, for certain racial groups and for certain income levels.  But no way could one argue that thinness was a characteristic that signaled reproductive value in some far-distant evolutionary prehistory.

Second, note this sentence:

The fact that girls and women value thinness more than boys and men [49] suggests that the drive to be thin is likely motivated by intrasexual competition [48,50 – 55]. 

This makes my brain ache.  We begin by arguing that hetero women compete with other hetero women in the characteristics men desire, to get sexual mates.  But then we are told that a characteristic men don't value as much as women do, thinness, suggests that the drive to be thin is likely motivated by intrasexual competition?????

How can this be?  Why compete so hard in something which doesn't provide commensurate nookie benefits? If men care less about women's thinness than women themselves, what reproductive purpose could the drive towards extreme thinness serve?

Third,  cast your eyes over that above quote again.  Vaillancourt seems to argue that the drive to be thin is motivated by intrasexual competition.  But couldn't the motivation be something different than competition with one's closest peers and the competition just follows because, duh, human beings are not only cooperative but also competitive?

Anyway, the article later tells us that

Consistent with the hypothesis that body dissatisfaction and eating pathology arise from intrasexual competition, Faer et al. [52] found links between rivalry for mates and body dissatisfaction, drive for thinness and both bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa among female undergraduate students.
Hmm.  I think those findings could be consistent with many, many other hypotheses than the idea that these female undergraduate students fight for the sexual attention of men by doing something men care less about than women.  For starters, suffering from an eating disorder is draining, and likely to create problems with one's social interactions with others.

The Economic Cartel of Women To Keep Sex Expensive

Vaillancourt then discusses her 2011 study with Sharma which I will address in a separate post.  She argues that this older study proves young women show indirect aggression towards potential rivals who are dressed in revealing outfits, because such dress indicates sexual availability (according to Vaillancourt).  Given that men are supposed to have an evolved preference for partners who are not licentious, why would women care to compete against women who look like they just might be licentious?

Here's how Vaillancourt saves the day:

Considering males’ preference for females as long-term partners with no, or limited, sexual experience [9], it seems curious that females would be biased against ‘promiscuous’ rivals. On balance, should females not be pleased that their competitors are engaging in behaviour that debases their mate value? According to Baumeister & Twenge [73], females are threatened by promiscuous females because ‘sex is a limited resource that women use to negotiate with men, and scarcity gives women an advantage’ (p. 166). That is, females, not males, suppress the sexuality of other females and they do so by using ‘informal sanctions such as ostracism and derogatory gossip’ (p. 172). In other words, females punish other females who seem to make sex too readily available using indirect aggression [74 – 77].

Our old friend Baumeister!***  But note that we have now left evolutionary psychology!  This is the economic cartel theory:  Women constrain other women's sexuality in order to keep sex a scarce commodity with a high value, so as to charge more for it.  I think a better name for it would be If The Whole World Is A Brothel Why Can't I Get Any?

I earlier spent time going through the evidence Baumeister&Twenge provide**** in their 2002 article to support their thesis that it is other women who police women's sexuality, not men.

A large chunk of the studies they list are about what mothers tell their daughters.  Yet others are about advice by close friends.  Imagine that!  Mothers and sisters and close friends tell a young woman about the dangers (physical and social) of having sex very early or with multiple partners!  No other explanation can possibly pop into our minds to explain such advice than a world-wide gals' sexual cartel.

And the one study I was able to get hold which looked at men's more encouraging attitudes about sluttitude***** consisted of what boyfriends tell their girlfriends.  As sex in that context was defined as sex with the boyfriend, the conclusions of that study tell us nothing about the general male opinions about slutty women.

Perhaps there are studies which conclusively prove that men highly value sluttiness in women.  Perhaps.  On the other hand, that doesn't seem to be the case on the Internet or in schools I've heard about where quite young boys and girls call girls whores when they want to disrespect them (the children call boys other things). 

In short, I'm not convinced that Vaillancourt makes a good case for women's intrasex aggression towards sexually adventurous women as a sexual strategy.  I believe that much better explanations could be found in theories which cover the uses of social ostracism.  But even in that case we cannot ignore the historical position of women, the role of marriage and prostitution and the general societal norms about what kind of sexual lives are acceptable for women vs. men.

Bitching, Tending or Befriending?

As my last point on the review article, Vaillancourt speculates that indirect aggression is so effective on female victims because they are primed to respond to it:

Females’ pronounced negative reaction to peer victimization, and in particular indirect peer victimization, is consistent with the ‘tend-and-befriend’ hypothesis [70]. Specifically, Taylor and co-workers have argued that females’ biobehavioural response to stress is not one that principally involves ‘fight-or- flight’. Rather, the response involves a pattern of ‘nurturant activities that are designed to protect the self and offspring that promote safety and reduce distress’ (i.e. tending) and the ‘creation and maintenance of social networks that may aid in this process’ (i.e. befriending; p. 411).

Perhaps.  Who knows?  But is this really consistent?  The review article is about women's use of aggression,  not about tending-and-befriending.  What if the aggressor responded to stress by indirect aggression?  Then she did not tend-and-befriend.  I'm not saying that the two are mutually exclusive, only that indirect aggression seems to fall under the "fight-or-flight" case which females are not supposed to principally use.  But whatever.

Some Last Words

That's probably enough on the review article.  I want to stress that I'm completely certain that women can be competitive, that women can be aggressive and that women compete for sexual partners.  And so do men.

I also want to stress that doing research in this particular field must be tremendously difficult, because the observational studies (do bitchy people get more sex later on? do targets of bitchiness get less sex later on?) are almost impossible to do without vast problems (based on the three I looked at from Vaillancourt's list).  How do we control for all the other things which tie into being, say, the object of indirect aggression and later sexual choices or outcomes?   What if acting bitchily and having sex early are both indications of some completely different underlying variable (a desire to violate social norms for some reason, say)?

At the same time, laboratory experiments (almost always done with very young psychology undergraduates from North America) cannot properly replicate real-world situations of dating, mating and family formation.  The study subjects are exposed to some short manufactured role-play or are shown a bunch of photographs.  This is supposed to predict the same individuals' much later mate selection.  It is even supposed to provide us information about what our prehistoric ancestors might have found most evolutionarily advantageous.

These difficulties should make my criticisms kinder.  That they do not is because of the certain-sureness of the articles I criticize.  The custom in academic articles is to include something about the limitations of an article and suggestions about how to get around that one in future work.  In my experience far too many evolutionary psychology articles have anorexic sections of that kind, and far too many of them also stipulate, from the beginning, that the evidence they provide can only suggest an evolutionary explanation when so many other candidates rear their eager heads.

*This article gives us a fascinating glimpse about what happens when a hypothesis based on evolutionary adaptations appears to be falsified:

 The authors expected to find a positive correlation between boys' perpetration of direct violence and later success at dating because of an evolutionary hypothesis to that effect (violent men got the prehistoric babes?).  But this is not what they found.  Though indirect aggression (bitching) seemed to work for both boys and girls (bitchy boys and girls had more dates later on, they report, though note my above comments concerning all this in research), direct aggression did not benefit boys.  The reverse was the case.  Then this quote:

In modern human society, direct aggression is negatively sanctioned in order to promote within-group cohesiveness.  This likely represents a drastic shift from the longstanding mammalian trend for aggression to enhance reproductive success.  It seems logical that the evolved tendency to aggress directly for reproductive opportunity has become vestigial in group-based societal living conditions,and is now often counterproductive (as shown by the results of the present study).
 Do you see what was done there?  Had the results been that direct aggression got boys more dates, that would have proven the evolutionary quality of direct aggression as a sexual strategy for males.  But that this was not the result demonstrates-- what?  The same thing.

**By the term "thinness" I mean the sort of fashion model thinness which is regarded as optimal for women today, not the lack of obesity.  As an aside, I was shocked to find that evolutionary psychologists seriously discuss anorexia nervosa as an evolutionary adaptation gone wrong.

***You are gonna love this guy.  For a short introduction, read these three parts of my earlier glance at the economic theory of sex he co-created:  Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

 ****I should note that I was unable to read all the articles Baumeister&Twenge listed, though I did read most of them.

*****I use "sluttitude" here, because Vaillancourt has chosen to use "bitchiness" in her academic work.  As a total aside, I don't remember bitching being common in my own youth.  This means nothing much, except the possibility that the sanctioned forms of aggression might have stronger cultural differences.  I do remember slamming doors and throwing books on the floor etc.