Department of Anthropology

Informational warfare: Coalitional gossiping as a strategy for within-group aggression

Hess NH and Hagen EH 2009. Informational warfare: Coalitional gossiping as a strategy for within-group aggression.

Evolutionary scholars often emphasize the strategic benefits of coalitions in male aggression and warfare. Theories of human female coalitions, however, have not recognized any competitive function for coalitional behavior, and instead emphasize mutual nurturing and help with childcare; this is despite the fact that a significant body of research has shown that relationships among nonhuman female primates do serve competitive functions. We argue that relationships among human females, like those among human males and among female nonhuman primates, in part serve competitive aggressive, functions.

Women and men often engage in indirect aggression (e.g., gossiping and ostracism). To date, studies have not considered the strategic benefits of forming coalitions for the purposes of indirect aggression. We outline a strategic approach to coalitional indirect aggression, which we term information warfare. We then present two studies that test various predictions derived from this approach. We find that friends increase perceived offensive capabilities for indirect aggression, i.e., the ability to inflict reputational harm on an adversary, and that friends also increase perceived defensive capabilities, i.e., deter negative gossip. We also test more general gossip-as-competition hypotheses. These result support the hypothesis that women’s coalitions have a competitive function. Finally, this article describes a subject pool that is of potential interest to social science researchers who are in need of study participants: those of’s onlineaccessible Mechanical Turk workforce.