Last week, the first season of Bravo’s deliciously nasty The Real Housewives of New York City ended much the same way it began, with dinner and savagery. The five “housewives”—Jill, LuAnn, Ramona, Alex, and Bethenny—and their families gathered for a swank pre-Thanksgiving feast. It was an endurance test of bitchiness, featuring eye rolling, social humiliation, and loud judgments about child-rearing techniques. And it couldn’t have been a more ideal laboratory for psychologists in the burgeoning field of social-aggression research. (“Cattiness is what it’s usually called by non-researchers,” says Tracy Vaillancourt, a psychologist at McMaster University and the University of Ottawa.)
In the mid-nineties, social (or “relational”) aggression started gaining scientific attention as the female version of physical bullying. Studies suggest that this kind of nasty behavior becomes more prevalent as we age (and grow more cognitively sophisticated) and is especially common among people of high status. And whereas “most forms of aggression are associated with being disliked, relational aggression is also associated with being really popular,” says Mitchell Prinstein, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina. Which brings us to the housewives, who are female (check), middle-aged (check), high status (at least according to Bravo), and cognitively sophisticated (well, if you’re feeling generous). These are extremely talented social aggressors. When Alex insists on bringing her husband to an all-female gathering, the ladies gossip about the couple’s co-dependence until Ramona attacks the pair in person, prompting the women to flip their allegiances and make snide remarks about her. Later, when Alex says a girls’ night out violates gender equality and that women should be able to talk about vibrators in mixed company, Bethenny rolls her eyes and attacks Alex’s reference to a plug-in vibrator (“Why are you plugging it in? Like, what era are you in?”).
Viewers of the show have, if anything, proved even more vicious: The Television Without Pity Website temporarily suspended its Real Housewives thread in part because of the extreme vitriol of its users. But just how infectious is televised social aggression? Researchers at an English university found that watching nasty behavior—in their case, the movie Mean Girls—made college students more willing to subsequently trash an instructor in what they believed to be a hiring meeting. If further investigation supports this finding, we might all be in trouble. “I would challenge you to find a reality show where they’re not using social aggression,” says Vaillancourt.