A new study published in Evolutionary Psychological Science reported that upward appearance comparison predicted increased envy among women; this, in turn, predicted willingness to spread negative – but not positive – gossip about an attractive woman.
Given that men (vs. women) place greater value on beauty, women (vs. men) are more likely to compete in this domain. Envy – which “is characterized as an unpleasant, negative emotional response to another person or group of people who an individual perceives to have a superior quality, achievement, status, or possession that they desire and wish a rival would lack” can be an important motivator for women’s intrasexual competition. This is particularly relevant when making social appearances in the domain of physical appearances, in order to gauge where one stands relative to other women.
In this work, Rachael Morgan and colleagues examined “whether envy mediates the link between experimentally induced upward appearance comparisons and women’s intrasexual gossip.” When women view their attractiveness as lower than that of the competition, they may be more motivated to engage in intrasexual competition.
Self-promotion tactics, which refers to attempts to increase one’s own mate value relative to members of the same sex, is one way to do so. In contrast, competitor derogation tactics work to decrease the mate value of same sex rivals, relative to one’s own. Given the intention is to harm the rival’s reputation and decrease their desirability as a mate, such behaviors are considered to be “aggressive intrasexual competition tactics.”
Indirect aggression can involve spreading negative gossip, and women (vs. men) have a preference for the use of gossip as an aggression tactic against same sex competitors. Women, more so than men, would respond to false accusations by attacking a rival’s reputation. Prior work has suggested that women’s same sex aggression is not random, but rather targeted toward the most attractive and sexualized women. Relatedly, women who compare their attractiveness to that of others’ to a lesser extent report more frequent indirect victimization by other women.
Emotions could have facilitated domain-specific problem solving throughout our evolutionary history. Among women, envy is elicited when they feel threatened by the attractiveness of other women. Prior research has demonstrated a motivational role of envy, whereby unfavorable appearance comparisons increased envy among women, and in turn, attitudes and intentions of appearance enhancing procedures (e.g., cosmetic surgery, makeup application).
A total of 182 American and Canadian women between ages 18-39 were included in this research. Participants were told that they would be viewing five ads and responding to questions about them, as part of a “marketing study about magazine advertisement efficacy.” Participants were randomly assigned to one of two conditions, which involved either viewing five advertisements featuring a female model (appearance comparison condition), or advertisements created by the same companies which only featured the product (control condition).
Ads featuring a model involved a woman who was nude / wearing a bikini or bra and underwear. Control ads included a collage of photos featuring people wearing branded clothes, or various products (e.g., beer bottle, car). Ads were viewed for 30 seconds. In the control condition, participants provided ratings to five statements specific to the ads/product on 5-point scale (e.g., “I like the layout of this ad”, “This ad is effective in promoting its product”).
In the appearance comparison condition, participants provided ratings to the aforementioned statements, as well as the statements “I would like my body to look like this woman’s body”, “This woman is thinner or prettier than me”, “In a busy clothing store, I would not like to try on bikinis in the same room as this woman if she were also trying on bikinis.”
Participants rated the extent to which they felt “envious”, “hostile”, “inferior”, “longing for what another has”, “mediocre”, “motivation to improve”, “resentful”, “unlucky”, and “wishful” on a 7-point scale. These ratings were used to create a state envy score.
Participants then read a scenario that included 4 pieces of positive information (e.g., speaks four languages, IQ of a genius) and 3 pieces of negative information (e.g., was unfaithful to previous boyfriend) about a woman named Veronica. They rated their likelihood of sharing each of these pieces of information, which was used to create positive and negative gossip scores.
Morgan and colleagues found that envy mediated the association between upward appearance comparison and negative (but not positive) gossip about an attractive same-sex competitor. This model was replicated in two cross-sectional survey studies among undergraduate female students, finding that women who engaged in upward appearance comparisons more frequently also engaged in more gossip, and more indirect aggression toward other women. Importantly, these associations were explained by dispositional envy.
The authors conclude, “These findings provide empirical evidence to support the hypothesis that envy is an adaptive psychological mechanism that promotes compensatory behavior considering unfavorable social comparisons on important mate value traits.”
This study recruited a North American, predominantly Caucasian sample, which may limit the generalizability of the findings, as well as potential arguments from a cross-cultural perspective.
The study, “Envy Mediates the Relationship Between Physical Appearance Comparison and Women’s Intrasexual Gossip”, was authored by Rachael Morgan, Ashley Locke, and Steven Arnocky.