It found that girls as young as 3 or 4 will use manipulation and peer pressure to get what they want.
"It could range from leaving someone out to telling their friends not to play with someone to saying, 'I'm not going to invite you to my birthday party,"' said Craig Hart, study co-author and professor of marriage, family and human development at BYU. "Some kids are really adept at being mean and nasty."
They regularly exclude others and threaten to withdraw friendship when they don't get their way.
The "mean girls" are highly liked by some and strongly disliked by others. They are socially skilled and popular but can be manipulative and subversive if necessary. They are feared as well as respected.
The study is the first to link relational aggression and social status in preschoolers. It appears in the current issue of the journal Early Education and Development. David Nelson and Clyde Robinson of BYU are the other authors.
Researchers have long known that adolescents, particularly girls, engage in this sort of behavior, called relational aggression, to maintain their social status.
In fact, a number of books and movies have come out recently exploring this phenomenon, including the best-selling "Queen Bees and Wannabes" and the movie "Mean Girls."
"But it is striking that these aggressive strategies are already apparent ... in preschool," Nelson said. "Preschoolers appear to be more sophisticated in their knowledge of social behaviors than credit is typically given them."
Hart said other research has found that about 17 percent to 20 percent of preschool and school-age girls display such behavior. It also shows up in boys, but much less frequently.
"The typical mantra is that boys are more aggressive than girls, but in the last decade we've learned that girls can be just as aggressive as boys, just in different ways," he said.
The researchers asked 328 preschool children to rate their peers.