What really is the best way to a man’s heart? Is it through his stomach, as many an old-fashioned mother will tell you? Or is it via busty bosoms, shiny hair, and other physical accoutrements enhanced by the wonders of makeup or silicone? Or maybe, it has nothing to do with what he sees, and everything do with what he hears… at least that is the case according to findings from a recent study published in Evolutionary Psychological Science.
When it comes to intrasexual competition (competition between the same sex for a mate), researchers have found, the weapon of choice for women is something that comes effortlessly to many: gossip. (Note: This is not to say that men don’t engage in gossip — it’s just that the study finds women are more likely to gossip or spread rumors as a way to bad-mouth a sexual rival.)
In the study, researchers distributed multiple surveys to 290 young adults to measure their competitiveness levels, behavior toward the same sex in terms of mating competition, gossiping habits, and general attitudes toward gossip.
The results indicated that those who were more competitive toward the same sex were more likely to talk behind each others’ backs and had less qualms doing so. Not only did the study find women tend to gossip more than men, they also believe gossip has a “greater social value, which may allow them to gather more information about possible competitors in the game of finding a mate.”
How exactly does talking smack get you closer to the love of your life? Well, most of us can readily admit that gossiping is an extremely effective way to dig up dirt on people we don’t like, which can give us ammo to sully their reputation and question their intentions. This comes in particularly handy if you and said person are both vying for the same romantic partner.
You don’t need to look further than The Bachelor franchise to witness gossip as a prime example of mating manipulation. How many times have contestants whispered behind each other’s backs, accusing their fellow housemates of having relationships at home or harboring secret ambitions for Hollywood careers and not being there “for the right reasons”?
TV viewers expect this outbreak of cattiness in a household of singles all vying for the same person — it’s usually why we tune in in the first place (right?!). What is unexpected, however, is when the suitor gets sucked in, and swayed by the drama. Throughout the series, rumors have swirled of suitors eliminating contestants purely based on second-hand information from other contestants. And, sometimes people will gang together and jointly assassinate the character of a particularly threatening contestant. What this clearly demonstrates is that relationships don’t form in a two-person vacuum. Groupthink plays a role in shaping, influencing, and manipulating romantic behavior whether we realize it or not.
Tempted to dismiss this behavior as ratings ploys for reality TV? Think again. You’ll see the same mating rituals replay in the most remote jungle.
The Tsimané are a small, tight-knit indigenous group in Bolivia who survive in the Amazon by hunting, fishing, foraging, and farming — in the same way their ancestors did thousands of years before them. Tsimané women, on average, get married at 16, and have their first child at 19, and will have seven children throughout their lifetime. Their lives, in other words, are pretty much the polar opposite of the lives of the women on The Bachelor. Yet, when it comes to the mating game, their competition tactics are very much the same.
Like their North American counterparts, Tsimané women use gossip to manipulate the repetitions and attractiveness of their peers. In a 2006 study, researchers interviewed 101 native women ages 14-70 and asked them to rank ( or gossip about) other local women based on social and behavioral characteristics, such as: age, looks, housekeeping skills and childrearing ability. After the questionnaire, the participants were than shown photographs of the women they had just critiqued, and asked to designate who was the most attractive or beautiful. As you might expect, women who scored negatively on the questionnaire, also got low scores in the beauty department, whereas women with higher marks on the questionnaire were considered better looking.
In particular, wealth, power, unkempt children, poor housekeeping skills, and lying made the most impact on who was considered attractive.
How do these judgements affect one’s romantic prospects exactly?
First, as we learned earlier, gossip isn’t just a past time shared by women. It is a vital tool for social interaction between men and women. Case and point, according to the study, Tsimané men “receive much of their information through their wives, and the women’s gossip network sometimes mediates relations between men…” And, from here, you can imagine how easily information gets passed on, like an unfiltered, unchecked game of community telephone. Rumors get spread — That Tsimané woman next door is a terrible cook and has such dirty children. No one could ever love her ugly face. And this will be told and retold not just by women, but also by men. (In fact, one recent poll suggests men actually gossip more than women.) It’s easy to imagine the fate of this poor woman.
Whether we like it or not, rumors have a nasty tendency to turn into so-called facts — just look at The Crucible and The Scarlet Letter, two stories in which women’s lives were destroyed by rumors. One of the most vocal accusers of the real Salem Witch Trials, the real-life inspiration for The Crucible, was a poor, young servant woman named Elizabeth Hubbard, who successfully testified against almost 30 people, 17 of whom were arrested, and 13 hanged.
Thankfully, in today’s court of law, we no longer rely solely on rumors to determine whether someone is unsavory — unfortunately, outside of the courtroom, all bets are off. In other words, if you’re in the mood for love, watch what comes out of your mouth… and everyone else’s.