Highly competitive women are more likely to recommend shorter haircuts to other women, potentially to diminish the physical attractiveness of their romantic rivals, according to new research. This phenomenon occurs even among women who are unfamiliar with one another, suggesting an innate tendency among some women to sabotage potential rivals even without a direct threat.
The new findings, published in Personality and Individual Differences, provide unique insights into an understudied aspect of intrasexual competition, which refers to competition between members of the same sex. Intrasexual competition has been a subject of interest in psychology, particularly in understanding how individuals vie for social status, access to resources, and desirable mates.
Prior research has explored various aspects of intrasexual competition among women, including direct forms of competition such as verbal aggression, social exclusion, and reputation-damaging behaviors. In their new study, the researchers aimed to investigate whether intrasexual competition among women could manifest in the context of appearance advice given to hypothetical salon clients.
“What seems like it might be a flippant topic to study, hairdressers cutting off too much hair, is actually quite serious,” said study author Danielle Sulikowski, a senior lecturer at Charles Sturt University and president of the Australasian Society for Human Behaviour and Evolution.
“The hairdresser scenario is just a vehicle for asking questions about how women sabotage each other in subtle, barely detectable ways. Female aggression tends not to manifest as physical violence, or even as threats of physical violence. It also often doesn’t take other forms we easily recognize as aggression (verbal shouting, swearing, overt displays of anger).”
“Rather, female aggression is well-known to take the form of reputation damage. In adolescence this involves scurrilous rumors that can be socially devastating for victims. In adulthood, it can involve malicious workplace allegations and lies told in friendship groups which if taken seriously, can destroy reputations, livelihoods, marriages and relationships. We know all of this very well already.”
“What we really hardly know about at all, are the other things (other than spreading lies and rumors) that women do to aggress against each other (and against men as well, although that wasn’t the focus of the current research). What I’m interested in doing as a researcher is broadening our understanding of the (many!) ways in which female aggression manifests,” Sulikowski explained.
“This project looked to establish appearance sabotage as a vehicle of female-female aggression. We aren’t the first researchers to suggest that women use appearance advice as a form of sabotage, but this is one of the first (if not the first) quantitative demonstrations of that actually happening in the lab.”
The researchers conducted two separate studies, which included 450 women (aged 17-67) who were recruited from an undergraduate participant pool and the general public. The participants were presented with hypothetical salon clients, each with a portrait image that varied in attractiveness, a close-up image of their hair (described as either good or poor condition), and the client’s preference for cutting off “as little as possible” or “as much as necessary” hair. Participants were asked to recommend the amount of hair to be cut off for each client.
The researchers found that women who reported higher levels of intrasexual competitiveness were more likely to recommend that clients have more hair cut off when the hair was in good condition and clients expressed a preference for minimal cutting. The reason behind this recommendation might be to subtly manipulate the appearance of their rivals. By advising more extensive haircuts, these women could potentially diminish the physical attractiveness of other women.
Another intriguing finding is that women advised clients of similar attractiveness as themselves to cut off the most hair. In this scenario, participants effectively targeted women they perceived as being on the same attractiveness level as themselves. This suggests a form of competitive behavior known as horizontal competition, which occurs when individuals compete with others of similar attributes or qualities.
The choice to focus on women of similar attractiveness may be strategic. Highly attractive individuals may not pose a significant mating threat to others because they likely have access to high-quality mates already. On the other hand, targeting less attractive individuals might not yield the desired results, as their physical appearance may not be easily harmed through hairstyle changes.
“That this is not light-hearted and funny! In this study, we observed that when a client’s hair was healthy, and the client advised they wanted it kept long, women who were higher on intrasexual competitiveness (intrasexual competitiveness is a tendency to see other women as competitive threats), advised their clients to cut off more hair,” Sulikowski told PsyPost.
“The way we set up the scenario in this study was such that the ‘hairdresser’ and the ‘client’ didn’t know each other, and there was no implied competition between them (no suggestion that they would ever compete with each other for men, jobs or anything else). The implications of this are substantial. It suggests that at least some women engage in sabotage of other women as almost a default response – in the complete absence of any identifiable reason to do so.”
“It’s understandable, and expected, for women to engage in some sort of sabotage if another woman is a direct threat – if she’s flirting with your partner, for example. But the suggestion that at least some women might engage in sabotage of other women as a default setting whenever the opportunity presents itself, is a new implication from the current study.”
While this research offers valuable insights into female intrasexual competition through appearance advice, it’s important to note some limitations. The study used a hypothetical salon scenario, which may not fully capture real-world interactions. Future research should aim to explore this phenomenon in actual salon settings or other contexts where women may compete indirectly.
Additionally, the study focused on appearance advice within a specific context. To gain a deeper understanding of female intrasexual competition, researchers should expand their investigations into other aspects of women’s interactions. This could include exploring competition in friendships, workplace dynamics, or other social situations where reproductive outcomes might be influenced.
“This study is really just demonstrating that appearance sabotage does occur between women and is linked to intrasexual competition,” Sulikowski said. “Beyond that, we don’t know much else. We don’t know the full extent of circumstances in which this occurs. We don’t know whether this is the default response of all women, or just some women.”
“We don’t know what circumstances would exacerbate this type of sabotage, or if there are circumstances in which it wouldn’t occur. Would women sabotage their own friends more or less than strangers? Or their own sisters? Women also frequently have ‘frenemies’ (which are friends that you actually dislike, so that really they are your enemy) – that’s a really interesting phenomena to investigate from the perspective of subtle female aggression.”
“Watch this space,” Sulikowski added. “There are many types of sabotage beyond appearance sabotage and we (the research team) are just getting started.”
The study, “Off with her hair: Intrasexually competitive women advise other women to cut off more hair“, was authored by Danielle Sulikowski, Melinda Williams, Gautami Nair, Brittany Shepherd, Anne Wilson, Audrey Tran, and Danielle Wagstaff.