Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Understanding Mean Girls

Regina from Mean Girls
"She's fabulous, but she's evil," social outcast Damian famously says about queen bee Regina George in the 2004 film Mean Girls. This line seems to perfectly capture our culture's love/hate relationship with so-called mean girls.

On the one hand, we're obsessed with them. Another Mean Girls sequel, Mean Moms, is forthcoming, and reality TV is replete with real-life mean girls of all kinds (for example, see these clips from The Real Housewives of New York, The Jersey Shore, and The Hills). Even after high school, we look to cultural alphas, such as high-profile celebrities, for advice on how to dress, what to eat (even if it's just lemon juice and cayenne pepper), and even how to surgically alter ourselves (see I want a famous face). There are apparently even elderly mean girls.

On the other hand, we resent their power and love to bring them down, which is probably why so many mean girl-centered movies (Heathers, Saved!, Sixteen Candles, etc) feature the demise of the queen bee and the triumph of the downtrodden, and why powerful female politicians are often torn apart by the media. See, for example, Carly Fiorina's infamous "mean girl moment" or Maureen Dowd's column on mean girl politicians. (Dowd herself was later accused of being "the ultimate mean girl").

The stereotypical mean girl is a powerful alpha female who manipulates others through tactics commonly referred to as relational aggression (the complement to boys' primarily physical aggression, though both genders can use both types of aggression). These tactics may include publicly humiliating or spreading nasty rumors about other girls, pitting friends against one another, excluding or rejecting former friends, or even developing a set of rules for their group members and punishing disobedience (e.g., "You cannot wear jeans any day but Friday"). In some cases, they may even explicitly suggest that other girls' hurt or kill themselves, as 15-year old Phoebe Prince's bullies allegedly did on the day that she took her own life.

It's hard not to see these behaviors as bordering on evil. But the truth is, almost all of us (guys included) have behaved in some of these ways, or at least enabled them, at one time or another. It's easy to demonize mean girls, but in order to effectively address such a deep and pervasive problem, it's also important to try to understand what motivates meanness. Here are some research-based principles to consider.

1) Popularity does not necessarily lead to cruelty. As Michael wrote about in a previous post, power does not always corrupt. Although it may be difficult to dismantle high school's elaborate social hierarchies, the least we can do is try to encourage prosocial values in those who hold power. A powerful girl's disapproval of her peers' mean behavior may be especially likely to change it. For this reason, anti-bullying experts like Rosalind Wiseman, educator and author of Queen Bees and Wannabes, the book that inspired the film Mean Girls, believe it is important to work directly with the queen bees as well as their victims, although the former tend to be more resistant to intervention.

2) Meanness is often a mask for insecurity. It is not uncommon for mean girl behavior to be motivated by jealousy or sexual competition, research suggests. For example, Phoebe Prince allegedly went on a date with an older guy who had previously dated one of the girls who began bullying her, and their insults (e.g., calling her an "Irish whore") reflected this connection. Interestingly, victims tend to be either more attractive or less attractive than perpetrators - more and they are perceived as a threat, less and they are an easy target. Meanness may also be related to narcissism, a personality trait that has been shown to lead to aggressive behavior in the face of ego threats. Narcissists may seem confident on the surface, but they tend to have deeper insecurities. This disconnect is reflected in research showing that narcissists tend to report high explicit self-esteem but exhibit low implicit self-esteem.

3) The environment can breed meanness (or at least do little to prevent it). It's often hard for teachers and staff to know what's going on, especially with the recent surge in cyberbullying, or know how to properly intervene. Some teachers try to help but aren't taken seriously, while others are either indifferent, out of touch, or themselves intimidated by bullies (Rosalind Wiseman, the author noted above, is a self-admitted former mean girl, which helps her get inside the mean girl mind - and not be fooled by manipulation). School culture itself is not always conducive to cooperation and inclusivity. Many schools divide students into different trajectories early on based on apparent ability, and the common curve-based grading system can further fuel competition. Research suggests that certain work environments are similarly meanness-breeding: meanness can become a survival tactic, especially for women in male-dominated arenas.

4) We are all mean girls at times. Mean girls would have little power if it weren't for their enablers - that is, the rest of us. I'll never forget the lunch table drama from middle school. If a disliked person sat down at one of the long tables, everyone else would get up and move to another table, leaving that person alone. The cruelty of this practice still makes me shudder. In all that time, not a single person ever stayed at the table with the rejected person or called the mean girls out. Everyone was afraid for their own skin, a testament to our powerful psychological need to belong and be accepted by social groups, especially at that vulnerable age when our moral capacities and confidence in ourselves are less well-developed. But exclusion is also common among adults. A new study suggests that when faced with the threat of exclusion by two other women, women are more likely than men to respond by forming an alliance and excluding one of the other women. The researchers believe that this tendency is due to women's stronger reliance on one-on-one bonds, whereas men tend to be more concerned with their status in a group. But as we know all too well, both genders are guilty of forming exclusive us vs. them boundaries, a tendency that can lead to discrimination, dehumanization, and in its more extreme forms, murder and genocide. From this perspective, high school meanness is just a smaller-scale version of a larger human problem.

Underneath the facade, it turns out that the real Regina George is neither fabulous nor evil. She is just a regular girl who, like the rest of us, wants to be loved. Sometimes, though, even the most innocent of motives can lead us astray.

Further reading:

Benenson JF, Markovits H, Thompson ME, & Wrangham RW (2011). Under threat of social exclusion, females exclude more than males. Psychological science, 22 (4), 538-44 PMID: 21403174

Zeigler-Hill, V. (2006). Discrepancies Between Implicit and Explicit Self-Esteem: Implications for Narcissism and Self-Esteem Instability Journal of Personality, 74 (1), 119-144 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-6494.2005.00371.x


  1. Great article please let me use this piece on my blog and link it back here.

  2. Sure, feel free to repost it. Thanks for reading!

  3. This is a great topic! I already met some mean girls but I just ignore them. For me, the more you entertain them the more they will tease you. I haven't heard about the incident situation happen to Phoebe Prince. I just discovered it today and thanks for this one.

  4. Good article - thanks! - but I disagree that followers of 'mean girls' hurt the victims solely out of fear. A lot of them are excited by it, and enjoy the opportunity. It's as if they are given permission to hurt someone, and therefore have no responsibility. Leaders, men and women, can manipulate people to do their dirty work for them by making them believe it's the 'right thing to do'.

  5. It's funny because High School is a Mean Girl. Grades which are often biased an subjective towards a certain way of thinking (History?), restrictive ("No food in class", "sit in your assigned seat", "don't use green pen"), encouraging following the leader mindlessly and not thinking for yourself (forcing a minimum pages, word count, font/ size, margins, spacing, number of references) and excluding those who think otherwise (art/music is subordinate as well as PE or any forms of showing intelligence outside the norm, expelling "rebels" who actually do nothing wrong, forcing attendance and giving low grades for missing/ being late despite high test scores). I mean clearly Regina is threatened by Janice for being another Alpha female who speaks her mind and therefore outcasts her ("Now I guess she's on track.", making up that she was a lesbian)

    Hmmmm.... maybe, just maybe society is overly structured and it is making an authoritative social structure as well. Maybe if we designed everything more open mindedly and made education a place of guidance (as well as parenting) our children would be a little less fucked up and follow their curiosities and passions rather than doing what they felt pressured into doing. Just a thought....

    PS My opinion is totally biased seeing that it is only coming from observations made in my own life. I have actually received low scores on thorough and technically well argued papers on matters of opinion. I have also, despite according to my university professors written "excellent and well argued papers", received average grades because of technicalities such as underusing references (aka I think for myself) and not fucking italicizing a particular part of a reference. That has nothing to do with the quality of the work or argument and to me just shows that our educators are for the most part lazy and not really interested in what we have to say. This is most likely because they are really only university professors because their research is funded.

    I hope you enjoyed my totally biased rant on we're doing it wrong. But I have played the Regina, the Janis and the independently thinking, but shy and weak acting role.

    I'm really only commenting on this out of pure boredom and wanting something more mentally stimulating than "Keeping up with the Kardashians".

  6. Imagine the above personality defects in several familial members ... its a cesspool. But one learns early to sift through the b.s. and manipulation ... even if your unable to formally recognize it.