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Do you understand teenage brains? I think unless you are the current owner of one, it can be hard for others, especially adults to be able to always understand them.
As a parent of two teenagers I am sometimes privy to the complexities of some of their social interactions with each other and their friends.

It isn’t always pretty.
What is noticeable though is that with the boys, our son and his mates sort out any disagreements or differences relatively quickly. They have a brief conversation (which can sound like a series of grunts to the adult ear) hopefully no physical involvement and then it’s all over. The girls though, can be, oh so different. Their social network is a highly complex maze with ongoing realignments, some major fall-outs, volcanic eruptions followed by a global freeze or big group hug.

What I’ve also noticed is that when the girls are going through one of these shift of allegiances, that it is usually the girl now on the outer, the one making the moves to change friendship groups, who is the first to start behaving differently to her friends. The former bosom buddies are blamed for the being the instigators of the change and of being mean, even when it is quite clear (even to me) that it there is a general change of behaviour within the group and the person now excluding themselves.
Bizarre. Or is it?

Same game different rules.

It seems that the different genders use a different set of strategies to deal with social threat. Girls and women are no less competitive than the boys; we just go about it in a different way.

A study in Psychological Journal discusses this. When a girl or woman is threatened in a social context, her reaction is to protect herself by forming an alliance with another, whereas a man is more likely to be ready to fend off any opponents by themselves.

Women are much more threatened by a lack of social network. We worry about being excluded from a group, whereas the men just worry that they will get beaten up.

To investigate this, a group from Harvard took a group of volunteers and asked them to play a game. In the game the volunteers were asked to play against two hypothetical partners with the aim being to accumulate points for money.

They were divided in to three groups to play.
• They could operate on their own,
• They could form an alliance with one of the hypothetical partners,
• Or form a three-way cooperation. In this last group, all competition was removed and the profit was to be split three ways.

Then, some of the volunteers were then given a different set of instructions for the game. If they had opted to work alone, they were told that they ran the risk of being excluded by the other two players. Here the threat of social exclusion was being made obvious.

The results showed that when there was no threat of social exclusion, there was no difference in the choice of group by the men or women. But when the threat of social exclusion was included, it was the women who opted more often to form an alliance with a partner, even though they knew this could lead to the third person missing out.

I guess this study highlights that while we are all social human beings, it is the female gender who depend the most on their social network for status and certainty, whereas the males are more prepared to go it alone if necessary.

It is the girls, who will protect themselves by ensuring they get to stay in the safety of their own particular herd at all costs, even though it may result in someone else being excluded.

Do you recognise your own pattern of how you deal with social threat?

Association for Psychological Science (2011, March 5). Mean girls and queen bees: Females threatened by social exclusion will reject others first. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 10, 2011, from http://www.sciencedaily.com¬ /releases/2011/02/110224121907.htm

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, keynote speaker and best-selling author. You can now pre-order her new book ‘The Natural Advantage’ due for publication in October 2024.

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