When faced with the threat of being excluded from a group, women are likely to respond by excluding someone else, a new study indicates. 

Meanwhile, that threat made no difference to men playing the same competitive game.  

"It was striking — it was like a different world," said Joyce Benenson, the lead researcher, who is affiliated with Emmanuel College and Harvard University, referring to the difference. Benenson and her colleagues write the results indicate that women and men use different strategies when faced with a social threat. [Why We Kick Others When We're Down]

The game

The researchers had participants play a game in which they faced off against two other players represented by cartoons on a computer screen, who — unbeknownst to the participants — did not actually exist. Each participant played 28 rounds of a computer-driven game of chance, the object of which was to gain points to increase the amount of money earned at the end.

At the start of a round, participants learned their standing as well as the standings of the other two players. They then had the opportunity to choose to either compete alone, or form an alliance with one or cooperate with both other players and so split their points. Past research has shown that when people have a high probability of winning, they will compete alone, but as that probability decreases, they are more likely to form an alliance or cooperate.

Playing this version of the game, both men and women responded in roughly the same way, choosing to compete alone, form an alliance or cooperate at roughly the same points. However, a difference emerged once the participants were told, "If you compete alone, your two opponents will form an alliance and exclude you if they win." They were also told that if they formed an alliance with another player, the third player would be excluded.

This statement did not alter the outcome of the game in any way, and the male participants responded in the same way they had in the original game.

The women, however, did not. They formed significantly more one-way alliances than their male counterparts, and they formed more such alliances than when, without the threat of exclusion, they would have competed alone or cooperated.

Fear of exclusion

The key to this difference in how we respond to social threats lies in the types of relationships to which men and women gravitate – men prefer to socialize in groups, while women prefer close, one-on-one relationships. (The same pattern has been found in chimpanzees, Benenson said.)

"In order for a female to have a best friend, you have got to get rid of other people and you have got to be worried that someone is going to steal your best friend," she said.

If a man has a conflict with someone else in his group, the implications aren't devastating. "There are lots of others around, so there is not the same pressure to make sure no one ruins your relationship," she said.

Women, meanwhile, have more at stake if a relationship is threatened, Benenson said.

"I don't think girls are meaner. I think girls are more exclusive," she said. "It's more there is an advantage to social exclusion. It helps a female establish the kind of intense relationships females like best."

As a result, Benenson said, some women live with a fear of social exclusion that is unfamiliar to men.

The study will be published in a forthcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science.