Why Do Women Gossip About Other Women? This Researcher Did an Experiment to Find Out

Why Do Women Gossip About Other Women? This Researcher Did an Experiment to Find Out

Regina George has nothing on real-life women looking to take another woman down. 

By Marianne Garvey

As much as we hate to admit it, a new study is proving that women tend to gossip about other women to make themselves look better. Keep in mind, it’s not all women, but still.

The author of the study, Tania Reynolds, a doctoral student in Florida State University’s Department of Psychology, spoke to Personal Space and said that when delving into the idea of “gossip,” she found that women spread rumors about other women who appeared to pose a threat, whether that meant they were dressed provocatively or were considered prettier. A woman considered a man stealer was a direct threat.

Tania also found that highly competitive women gossip the most.

“Competitive females may be the primary perpetrators of adolescent bullying and then harmful workplace rumors,” she says. “People tend to give more weight to negative personal information because they consider it a truer indication of a person's character than positive details.”

Reynolds says she decided to study gossip “because men's same-sex competition tends to be more overt, physical, and confrontational than women’s,” and we tend to assume that men are the more competitive sex when that may not be the case.

“As a highly competitive woman myself, I knew there was a lot going on underneath the surface among women. I wanted to shed some light on the mechanisms by which women compete. Women are not the passive spectators or victims depicted throughout history,” Reynolds says. “Instead, they are agents, actively competing for social and romantic partners.”

Reynolds explained to us why she found that so many women turned into a real-life Regina George when dealing with an attractive woman they considered a threat.

“I hypothesized that women would use gossip to undermine the social appeal of their most threatening romantic rivals,” she says. “That is, women would strategically target other women who were appealing to men. When I read ethnographies about high schoolers and middle schoolers, this is exactly the pattern that you find. Girls who are pretty, liked by boys, popular, flirtatious, or sexually active are the ones most likely to be victimized by other girls' rumors and ostracism. So, I decided to manipulate various forms of romantic threat in my investigation.”

Reynolds conducted one study where women were more likely to spread damaging gossip about women who ostensibly flirted with their romantic partner (a direct romantic threat). And then she did two more studies, in which women spread more damaging gossip about physically attractive women. Finally, two additional studies were done where she found women strategically defamed a woman who dressed provocatively compared to conservatively.
The first four studies were conducted online, where female participants were randomly exposed to view one profile of a female, who was either more or less romantically threatening. After viewing the profile, women were told to imagine they had learned various pieces of information about her. They were asked how likely they would be to pass each along. I compared women's likelihood of transmitting the information when the female target was less threatening (unattractive) compared to more threatening (attractive).

“Across all five studies, women indeed undermined the reputations of those who were more threatening romantic rivals,” Reynolds explains.

Unfortunately, she found that women even gossiped when they liked the woman they were disparaging.

“My research did find that women tarnished the reputations of appealing women regardless of whether they explicitly liked those women,” she says. “This pattern suggests that women may spread the reputation-damaging information of their friends. Indeed, some research finds that mutual gossip is common among female friends. In study five, many of the women who gossiped about the female research assistant did so with concern. This made me wonder whether that is one of the strategies women use to pass on gossip. That is, by framing their gossip with concern (‘I am just worried about her’) women can spread one another's information without coming across as mean. If that is case, then women may be gossiping without even realizing they are gossiping, suggesting they could be transmitting information that their female friends do not want disclosed.”

What Reynolds hoped to achieve, she says, is that her study opens opens up a conversation about female competition and bullying.

“We have this common idea that only unattractive girls and women are bullied,” she says, adding, “However, the ethnographic research, along with my own studies, suggest it is the attractive, sexually open women that are most viciously targeted. If we want women to be able to freely embrace their sexuality, then we need to first have a discussion about how other women may be thwarting those goals. Indeed, the negative information that I used in my research was centered around women's promiscuity. Women were more willing  to say that another woman ‘had an STD,’ ‘cheated on her ex,’ and ‘slept around a lot.’ This pattern suggests women may be using one another's sexual information in particular.”

The first step to breaking this ugly gossip habit, says Reynolds, is to be aware that you’re doing it.

“We can make strategic decisions to reduce that in ourselves . . . and choose our friends carefully. If a woman is gossiping to us, she’s probably also gossiping about us,” she says.

In the end, gossip make the talker look bad.

“What we say about others, people instinctively attribute to us,” she says. “Even if you’re competitive, the better strategy is actually to spread positive information, because people will attribute these great traits to you.”

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