What Motivates Mean Girl Behavior?

Samantha Parent Walravens gets to the heart of the “Mean Girl” culture, so that we can effectively address it. Instead of merely demonizing the behavior, understanding the motivations can be a first step to stopping it.

Our culture is fascinated with the image of the mean girl.

Reality TV shows like The Real Housewives of New York, The Jersey Shore, and The Hills feature real-life mean girls in action — publicly humiliating and spreading nasty rumors about each other, pitting friend against friend, excluding or rejecting former friends, and even engaging in physical aggression.

While watching these on-screen antics may be a guilty pleasure for some, most of us resent the mean girl’s unwieldy power and long to see her fall from grace. Think of the movies Heathers, Sixteen Candles, and Mean Girls, all of which feature the demise of the queen bee and the triumph of the downtrodden. Ah, how sweet revenge can be…

Rosalind Wiseman, author of New Realities of Girl World and Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends,  (which was the basis for the movie Mean Girls), writes that “being ostracized by friends can feel to a developing girl as though she has been cast out of the only world that she wants to belong to.” These friends are often viewed as popular or important, and being friends with them gives status to a girl who feels unattractive and insecure.

Psychologists Frank Lachmann and Robert Stolorow call this kind of borrowing of status “gilt by association” (so, for example, a youngster hopes that some of the shine that is attached to their friends rubs off on them).

At the heart of the mean girl syndrome, in my view, is a culture that perpetuates girls’ feelings of insecurity and insignificance — so much so that their desire for acceptance overrides their innate feelings of self-worth. While it’s easy to demonize mean girls, in order to effectively address such a deep and pervasive problem, it’s also important to try to understand what motivates meanness — and what we, as parents, can do to stop it.

Here are some research-based principles to consider:
  1. Meanness is often a mask for insecurity. It is not uncommon for mean girl behavior to be motivated by jealousy or attention from the opposite sex. Victims who are more attractive are perceived as a threat. Victims who are less attractive are seen as an easy target. According to Kaye Randall, author of Mean Girls: 101 1/2 Creative Strategies for Working with Relational Aggression, 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.
  2. Popularity does not necessarily lead to meanness. Although it may be difficult to dismantle a school’s elaborate social hierarchies, the least we can do is try to encourage pro-social 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 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.
  3. The school 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. 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 by Dr. Gary Namie, a psychologist and cofounder of the Workplace Bullying Institute, a Washington state-based nonprofit, 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. Girls have a powerful psychological need to belong and be accepted by social groups, especially at that vulnerable age when our moral capacities and self-confidence 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, middle school meanness is just a smaller-scale version of a larger human problem.

Samantha Parent Walravens is the author of TORN: True Stories of Kids, Career & the Conflict of Modern Motherhood, chosen by the New York Times as the first pick for the Motherlode Book Club. 

 The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent GLI. GLI is a 501(c)(3) organization.

Up next: What Can Parents Do about Mean Girl Behavior? 

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