indirect aggression through social communication

Luncheon of the Boating Party, Pierre-Auguste Renoir

From an evolutionary perspective, sophisticated social communication plausibly has been more significant for woman than for men.  Among non-human primates, both females and males compete physically and aggressively with other group members.  Among humans, physical aggression is more characteristic of men than of women.[1]  That sex difference doesn’t mean that women are essentially more peaceful and cooperative than men.  Aggression can be indirect:

just like the other primates, coalitional relationships among women also function to facilitate aggressive within-group competition for valuable, monopolizable resources; unlike other primates, this aggression {women’s aggression} relies not on physical but informational capabilities. [2]

Arguments that physical aggression is more costly for women than for men indicate that, all else equal, indirect aggression is relatively more valuable for women than for men.[3]

According to scholarly research, women collect, analyze, and disseminate information to attack the reputations of other women in competition for material and social resources.  Indirect aggression is much more characteristic of adolescent girls than of adolescent boys.[4]  Human evolution plausibly has generated greater capabilities for indirect aggression in women than in men:

Because gossip is an excellent strategy for the high within-group competition females face, and because it is effective in attacking and defending difficult-to-assess aspects of reputation, gossip may have been a more effective weapon in female intrasexual competition than it was in male intrasexual competition, increasing selection for psychological adaptations for informational aggression in females. It follows that women should be better than men in using informational aggression, and that women should be more sensitive than men to threats of informational aggression. [5]

Women are intelligent organisms whose purposeful activities have evolutionary significance.[6]  Human communication capabilities affect not only humans’ success in competition with other species, but also competition among humans.  Indirect aggression or informational aggression and attacks on reputation makes sense within social-evolutionary understanding of humans.

An abstract concept of reputation, however, does not relate well to empirical knowledge about actual practices of communicative competition.  Consider this hypothesis:

Compared to men, a greater fraction of female reputation depends on difficult-to-confirm dimensions of reputation [7]

Because reputation has many possible dimensions, evidence relevant to this hypothesis isn’t easy to assess.  Moreover, the implications of different dimensions of reputation depend on the particular circumstances under consideration.  A woman’s reputation for being easily sexually accessible might have positive value in competition among women for copulations with males, but negative value in competition among women for male parental investment.  Competition among daughters for maternal resources is one possible type of competition.  Competition among daughters for life-long male mates is another.  The balance between these two forms of competition and the distribution of resources between women and men affects whether a reputation of loyalty to one’s mother has positive or negative overall reproductive value for women.

Indirect aggression is becoming more important with the expansion of communication networks.   Competition among women and men is primarily intrasexual.  Women’s indirect aggression is primarily directed at other women.  Yet women increasingly believe that their most important rivals are men.  Greater indirect aggression in the context of intersexual competition is likely to contribute to women’s dominance.

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[1] Archer (2004) pp. 302-5.

[2] Hess & Hagen (2006) p. 112.

[3] Campbell (2002) and Taylor et al. (2000) emphasize the cost of physical aggression to women.

[4] Archer & Coyne (2005) pp. 223, 225. 226.  Sex differences in indirect aggression among adults aren’t well-documented.  Hess & Hagen (2006) found that, compared to young men, young women expressed a stronger desire to aggress indirectly.  Women’s indirect aggression can be seen, for example, in scholarly work concerning the French Revolution, evolutionary psychology, violence against men, and rape of men.

[5] Hess & Hagen (2006) p. 66.  See also Hess & Hagen (2003).

[6] Exposition of this obvious point is central to the work of the influential scholars Sarah Blaffer Hrdy and Anne Campbell.

[7] Hess & Hagen (2006) p. 60.  See also Hess & Hagen (2003).

[image] Luncheon of the Boating Party, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, French, c. 1880.  In The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC.  Thanks to Google Art Project and Wikipedia.  The sex differences in social communication depicted in this painting differ from general patterns of sex differences in communication found in social-scientific studies.


Archer, John. 2004. “Sex Differences in Aggression in Real-World Settings: A Meta-Analytic Review.” Review of General Psychology 8(4): 291-322.

Archer, John and Sarah M. Coyne. 2005. “An Integrated Review of Indirect, Relational, and Social Aggression.” Personality and Social Psychology Review 9(3): 212-230.

Campbell, Anne. 2002.  A mind of her own : the evolutionary psychology of women. Oxford ; New York, Oxford University Press.

Hess, Nicole H. and Edward H. Hagen. 2006. “Informational Warfare.”

Hess, Nicole H. and Edward H. Hagen. 2006. “Sex Differences in indirect aggression: Psychological evidence from young adults.” Evolution and Human Behavior 27: 231-245.

Taylor, Shelley E., Laura Cousino Klein, Brian P. Lewis, Tara L. Gruenewald, Regan A.R. Gurung and John A. Updegraff (2000). “Biobehavioral Responses to Stress in Females: Tend-and-Befriend, not Fight-or-Flight.” Psychological Review 107(3): 411-429.

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