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February 17, 2019

Women use gossip 'as weapon' in romantic rivalries - study

Women gossiping./COURTESY
Women gossiping./COURTESY

Gossip and bullying doesn't just exist within high school and the movie "Mean Girls".

Research from the University of Florida has found that adult women use the same gossiping techniques as teenage girls to damage another woman's reputation and try to gain an advantage in romantic relationships.

Lead researcher and doctoral student Tara Reynolds led five studies that found women were more likely to spread negative information about a woman perceived as a threat to their romantic prospects. 

Women strategically used gossip to target a rival who posed either a direct or indirect threat. 

"It's consequential because a woman's reputation still predicts her access to romantic partners, friendships or professional collaborations, and this research shows gossip can substantially shift social perceptions," Reynolds said. 

"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."

Direct threats involve situations such as a woman trying to steal another woman's boyfriend. An indirect threat is more subtle, such as a woman who is physically attractive or 'provocatively' dressed.

One study had an attractive woman to wear two very different clothing styles and, in each case, share the same graphic details about her sexual activity to female participants, even though the disclosure could be devastating to her reputation.

Reynolds discovered that women who heard this damaging information were more likely to spread it when the speaker wore a low-cut shirt showing cleavage than when she dressed conservatively.

She published her findings in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, and also discovered highly competitive women spread negative information about their same-sex peers indiscriminately.

"This pattern suggests competitive females may be the primary perpetrators of adolescent bullying and then harmful workplace rumours," Reynolds said.

Social media has made spreading rumours and gossip even easier than in the past. Reynolds hopes that calling attention to the behaviour is the first step in preventing it.

"If school counsellors know the predictors of female bullying, and they understand it manifests in subtle ways like gossiping, then they'll be better equipped to detect it and deal with it," Reynolds said. 

"This research shows adult women demonstrate similar behaviors of adolescent bullies, and manipulating reputations can have serious consequences."

One unexpected finding of the study, Reynolds said, was that sometimes women shared gossip about an attractive woman, perceived as a threat, whether they liked her or not.

"That makes me think women don't really know they're doing it, or they're not doing it maliciously," Reynolds said. 

"If you can spread gossip without seeming mean, or if you phrase it with concern, such as, 'I am worried about her because she's not making good choices,' then the gossiper is perceived as a better friend, compared to one who gossips maliciously. 

"She can preserve her reputation while still harming a rival's. That suggests concerned gossip is an effective tactic, and women may not even consciously know they're doing it."

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