© Alamy
Women may be more cunning than men, helping them cope better with an aggressive situation

When the going gets tough, it seems women get tougher.

The fairer sex are more cunning and competitive than men when faced with a threatening situation, research shows.

Previous studies have suggested that men are more physically and verbally aggressive than women.

But it could be the case that women are instead using a different strategy to come out ahead.

Experts say they tend to rely more on subtle forms of aggression, such as socially excluding someone from a group if they are seen as a threat.

In fact, some women at risk of exclusion will strike first to ensure competitors are banished before they are.

To investigate how men and women respond to a social threat, volunteers were asked to play a game against two other people for money.

They could opt to compete alone, and run the risk of being excluded, or join forces with a competitor.

Female participants chose to work with an opponent and exclude the third player more often than the male volunteers.

Researcher and psychologist Joyce Benenson, from Harvard University in the U.S., told Psychological Science journal: 'The same-sex social worlds differ in that females have to worry about alienating others, whereas males worry about getting beaten up.'

To investigate how men and women respond when faced with a social threat, psychologist Joyce Benenson, of Harvard University, asked volunteers to play a game against two hypothetical partners in which they accumulated points for money. Volunteers had the option of playing by themselves or joining forces with one or two opponents.

In the final option, they would avoid competition, but split profits three ways. During the game, some of the volunteers were confronted with the possibility of social exclusion.

When competing alone, volunteers were told they ran the risk of being excluded by the two others.

When joining forces with one opponent, the volunteers were told that if they managed to win the third player would be excluded and would not win any points.

The results revealed that when volunteers played the game without the threat of social exclusion there was no difference between men and women in the number of times they chose to form an alliance with another player.

However, when the exclusion factor was used, female participants chose to join forces with one opponent and exclude the third player more often than did male volunteers.

The study authors wrote: 'As their primary competitive strategy to combat any social threat, females may attempt to form an exclusionary alliance, whereas males may endeavor to unilaterally and directly dominate an opponent.

'Women may be more sensitive than men to social exclusion, and when they feel threatened by the prospect of being left out, a woman's first response may be to socially exclude a third party.