“Women are inferior to men.” “Men and women are constantly battling for power.” “Women are trying to take men’s power away.” Although sexist beliefs such as these are probably less prevalent today than in the past, they are still surprisingly prevalent, even in egalitarian societies.
Researchers have fittingly dubbed such beliefs “hostile sexism”—which involves beliefs that women seek to take power away from men. A great deal of research now shows that hostile sexism is different than “benevolent sexism”—which involves the belief that women are wonderful but fragile and should be put on a pedestal by men. Although both forms of sexism can lead to discrimination against women, research shows that hostile sexism is more likely to influence overt aggression toward women in power, such as hostile derogation of female leaders, politicians, and feminists.
But hostile sexism is not directed only toward female leaders, female politicians, or feminists. The everyday damage of hostile sexism may be even more pervasive in romantic heterosexual relationships. After all, we interact with our romantic partners more than anyone else. Indeed, the more men agree with hostile sexist beliefs, the more they exhibit verbal and physical aggression toward their wives and girlfriends.
Why do attitudes about men’s and women’s power affect intimate relationships? Think about your own present (or past) intimate relationship. You probably depend on your partner more than anyone else for support, closeness, and intimacy, which makes romantic relationships rewarding and fulfilling. But this high level of dependence on your partner also challenges the power and control you have in your life. What your partner does affects you, and you them, and this dependence inevitably means your (and your partner’s) power is limited.
Men who hold hostile sexist attitudes find this challenge to their power in romantic relationships particularly threatening. In recent research, my colleagues I and tested whether these concerns about losing power would mean that men who hold hostile sexist beliefs think they lack power in their relationships. Across four studies, involving almost 300 couples, and more than 500 individuals from the United States and New Zealand, we found that men who score high in hostile sexism think they have less power than less sexist men think they do in their romantic relationships. Moreover, these perceptions were biased in the sense that men who held greater hostile sexist beliefs underestimated the power they had over their partners compared to how much power their partners reported the men actually had. So if Jack is high in hostile sexism, he is likely to believe that Jill has more power over him than Jill reports she has.
Our results suggest that men who more strongly endorse hostile sexism are more sensitive and vigilant about threats to power. This general sensitivity seems to lead men to underestimate the power they have in their own intimate relationships with women. This is important because when people think they lack power, they often behave in aggressive ways to try to restore their sense of power and control. Accordingly, across our studies, men scoring higher in hostile sexism perceived they lacked power in their relationships, which in turn predicted aggression toward their partners. This showed up on several measures of aggression—including derogatory comments, threats, and yelling at a partner during a conflict and both partners’ ratings of aggressive behaviors, such as being hurtful and critical, in their daily lives. It even applied when people recalled how aggressive they acted towards their partner over the last year.
Furthermore, perceiving a lack of power—and not simply desiring to be dominant over women—explained the link between hostile sexism and relationship aggression. This is important because people often assume that sexist men feel powerful and are aggressive to maintain dominance. However, in intimate relationships, neither partner can hold all the power. Power is always shared, and both partners depend on each other. Men who are worried about losing power—that is, those who endorse hostile sexism—should find it particularly hard to navigate the power constraints in intimate relationships.
Social scientists and the public often think about how sexism affects women in politics or the workplace. But hostile attitudes towards women are most routinely expressed in everyday interactions in close relationships. This research shows that sexist attitudes impact our intimate relationships, influence how we perceive our intimate relationships, and affect how we treat our partners.
The aggression associated with men’s hostile sexism is obviously harmful to women, and combatting this aggression to protect women’s health and well-being is important. But this pattern of perception and behavior is also damaging for men. Being involved in relationships in which men think they lack power and behave aggressively in a bid to gain power will inevitably undermine men’s well-being as well. To cite just one example, research in health psychology suggests that experiencing chronic hostility or anger is bad for people’s cardiac health.
The damage that aggression causes to intimate relationships might also reinforce hostile sexism by creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Men who endorse hostile sexism are concerned about losing power, which promotes aggression, which then undermines women’s relationship satisfaction and commitment. The more women are dissatisfied, the more likely they are to withdraw from the relationship, express negative feelings, become less committed, and so on. These effects will not only threaten men’s power further but may also reinforce hostile attitudes that depict women as untrustworthy. This potentially damaging cycle highlights another reason why examining the impact of sexist attitudes within relationships is so important.
- By Emily Cross
Emily J. Cross is a postdoctoral fellow at York University in Toronto, Canada, where she studies how sexism functions in romantic heterosexual relationships. The current research was conducted with colleagues at the University of Auckland, New Zealand.
This post is previously published on the Society of Personality and Social Psychology; Character and Context Blog
For Further Reading
Cross, E. J., Overall, N. C., Low, R. S. T., & McNulty, J. K. (2019). An interdependence account of sexism and power: Men’s hostile sexism, biased perceptions of low power, and relationship aggression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 117(2), 338-363. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000167
Davidson, K. W., & Mostofsky, E. (2010). Anger expression and risk of coronary heart disease: Evidence from the Nova Scotia Health Survey. American heart journal, 159(2), 199–206. doi:10.1016/j.ahj.2009.11.007
I want to start by acknowledging our group’s successes
In 2019, the lab saw Tracy Schultz and Cassandra Chapman awarded their PhD theses (whoohoo!). Tracy Schultz is working grimly but heroically in the Queensland department of the environment and Cassandra Chapman spent a year as a post doc in UQ’s Business School before securing a continuing T&R position there. Well done to both! It was also great fun welcoming Morgana Lizzio-Wilson as a post doc off our collective action grant (and hopefully continuing to work on the voluntary assisted dying grant in 2020): Morgana brought lots of vital energy to the lab, and I’m very grateful.
2019 also saw many other students working through their other milestones, including Hannibal, Liberty and Robin who were successfully confirmed (huzzah!), and Gi, Zahra, Kiara, Susilo, and Robyn who pushed through mid-candidature reviews and are coming up to thesis reviews. I also welcomed a new PhD student, Eunike Mutiara, who is working with Annie Pohlman in the School of Languages and Cultures at UQ on a project in genocide studies (I am an Associate Advisor). We had big health drama, with me and Tulsi both spending a lot of time away from work due to health concerns. Here’s hoping 2020 is healthy, happy and productive for us and for the group!
I also want to pass on a special thank you to our volunteers and visitors for the social change lab in 2019, including Claudia Zuniga, Vladimir Bojarskich, Hema Selvanathan, Jo Brown, Tarli Young, Sam Popple, Michaels White, Dare, and Thai, Elena Gessau-Kaiser, Lea Hartwich, and Eleanor Glenn. Thank you everyone! And here’s hoping that 2020 is equally fun and social!
Other news of 2019 engagement and impact
With our normal collective plethora of conference presentations and journal articles (see our publications page for the latter), I continued to have great fun this year with engagement.
In the environment space, I gave a few talks to universities but also state environment departments and groups such as the WWF (World Wildlife Fund). The talks argue that environmental scholars, leaders and advocates need to develop an understanding of the group processes underpinning polarisation and stalemates, because this is the new frontier of obstacles that we are facing. I reckon many established tactics of advocacy don’t actually work as desired to create a more sustainable world. We need to focus on those that avoid polarisation and stalemates, and instead grow the centre and empower conservative environmentalists. We should use evidence about effective persuasion in conflict to try to improve the outcomes of our advocacy and activism. As the year turns and the bush fires burn, as the feedback loops become more grimly clear in the oceans, ice caps, and rain forest, and as the global outlook looks worse and worse, I feel there is more appetite for new approaches among those environmental scientists, policy makers, and activists who are not drowning in despair and fury. J To mitigate despair and fury, I draw attention to new work by Robyn Gulliver coming out re what activists are doing and what successes they are obtaining. I also see a continued and increasing need for climate grief and anxiety work and I draw attention to the excellent Australian Psychological Society resources on this topic.
Looking at radicalisation and extremism: thanks to the networks from our conference at UQ last year on Trajectories of Radicalisation and Deradicalisation, I was invited to a groovy conference on online radicalisation at Flinders organised by Claire Smith and others. I reconnected with many scholars there, plus meeting heaps more at the conference and at the DSTO (the defence research group) in Adelaide. I am looking forward to connecting more widely - the interdisciplinary, mixed-methods engagement is exhilarating. It was also excellent at the conference to see the strong representation from Indonesian scholars like Hamdi Muluk, Mirra Milla and their colleagues and students. There is a lot to learn from their experience and wisdom, and I am excited to visit Indonesia this year.
Also on extremism, as part of my sabbatical, I visited the conflict centre at Bielefeld led by Andreas Zwick, with Arin Ayanian and others. It was truly impressive to see their interdisciplinary international assembly of conflict and radicalisation researchers, including refugee scholars sharing their expertise. I wish there were more of a consistent practice of translating the German-language output though eh. (Is it crazy to imagine a crude google translate version posted on ResearchGate, or at a uni page?) J I also visited Harvey Whitehouse’s group at Oxford, and greatly enjoyed the opportunity to give a talk at the Centre for the Study of Social Cohesion and to meet some of his brilliant students and post docs. And at St Andrews, Ken Mavor and Steve Reicher put together a gripping one day symposium on collective action: it is exciting to see the new Scottish networks that are coming together on this topic.
On the sabbatical so far, I also visited Joanne Smith at Exeter, Linda Steg and Martijn van Zomeren at Groningen, Catherine Amiot at UQAM, Richard Lalonde at York, Jorida Cila and Becky Choma at Ryerson, and earlier Steve Wright and Michael Schmidt at Simon Fraser. It is very fun to spend time with these folks and their students and colleagues, and I look forward to my 2020 trips, which are listed below. Just so people know, right now as well as trying to publish the work from the DIME grant on collective action (cough cough), I am trying to work up new lines of work on norms (of course!), (in)effective advocacy and intergroup persuasion, and religion and the environment. I welcome new riffing and contacts on any of these.
In other news, our lab has continued to work to take up open science practices in 2019 and to grapple with the sad reality – not new, but newly salient! – that sooo many hypotheses are disconfirmed and so many findings fail to replicate. We are seeking further consistency in pre-registration, online data sharing, transparency re analyses, and commitment to open access. Looking at articles, though, it still seems extremely rare to see acknowledgement of null findings and unexpected findings permitted, and I think this is still the great target for reviewers and editors to work on in order to propel us forward as a field.
Socialchangelab.net in 2020
Within the lab, Kiara Minto has been carrying the baton passed on by Cassandra Chapman, who started the blog and website in 2018, and Zahra Mirnajafi, who also worked on it in 2019. Thank you to Kiara and Zahra for all your great work last year with our inhouse writers, our guest bloggers, and the site!
I also am still active for work on Twitter, and I hope that you will follow @WlouisUQ and @socialchangelab if you are on Twitter yourself. In the meantime, we welcome each new reader of the blogs and the lab with enthusiasm, and hope to see the trend continue in 2020.
What the new year holds
In 2020, for face to face networking, if all goes well, I’ll be at SASP in April in Auckland, and at SPSSI in June in the USA. Please email me if you’d like to meet up. I’ll also be travelling extensively on the sabbatical – to Chile, Indonesia, New Zealand, and within Australia to Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide. I hope people will contact me for meetings and talks if interested.
Due to the sabbatical until July, I won’t be taking on new PhD students or honours students this year, but welcome expressions of interest for volunteer RAs and visitors from July onward. I’m not sure that I have as much energy as normal, what with all the travel and health dramas, but I am focusing almost exclusively on writing, talks and fun riffing until the sabbatical ends in few months, so let’s not let the time go to waste. J In Semester 2 2020, I’ll be teaching Attitudes and Social Cognition, a great third year social psychology elective, so I’m looking forward to that too.
All the best from our team,
All researchers in the Social Change Lab contribute to the "Do Good" blog. Click the author's name at the bottom of any post to learn more about their research or get in touch.