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Men's self-esteem suffers when female partner succeeds

Teresa Tanoos's picture
New study says men's self-esteem takes a beating when female partner succeeds

Deep down, men may not be so thrilled by the success of their wives or girlfriends (even though they say they are), according to a new study that found a man’s self-esteem often takes a beating when their female partner excels.

It didn’t matter if she was an excellent hostess or intelligent either. Men were still more likely to feel subconsciously worse about themselves when their significant other succeeded than when she failed, researchers report in the study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

On the contrary, the research found that women's self-esteem was not affected by their male partners' successes or failures.

"It makes sense that a man might feel threatened if his girlfriend outperforms him in something they're doing together, such as trying to lose weight," said the study's lead author, Kate Ratliff, PhD, of the University of Florida. "But this research found evidence that men automatically interpret a partner's success as their own failure, even when they're not in direct competition".

The findings of the study, which involved 896 participants in five different experiments, showed that men subconsciously felt worse about themselves when they thought about a time when their female partner thrived in a situation in which they had failed.

In one of the experiments, 32 couples from the University of Virginia were given what was described as a "test of problem solving and social intelligence" and then told that their partner scored either in the top or bottom 12 percent of all university students. Hearing that their partner scored high or low on the test did not affect what the researchers called participants' explicit self-esteem, such as how they felt.

Another test was also given to participants to discover how they felt subconsciously about their partners' performance, or what the researchers described as implicit self-esteem. For this test, a computer monitored how quickly people associated good and bad words with themselves. Participants with high implicit self-esteem who saw the word "me" on a computer screen, for example, were more likely to associate it with words like "excellent" or "good", as opposed to "bad" or "dreadful”.

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The men told that their partner scored in the top 12 percent had significantly lower implicit self-esteem than the men who believed that their partner scored in the bottom 12 percent. Participants did not receive information about their own performance.

Meanwhile, in two other studies conducted in the Netherlands, findings were similar.

According to the United Nations' Gender Equality Index, the Netherlands boasts having one of the smallest gender gaps in labor, education and politics. Yet, both of these other studies found that Dutch men, like American men, felt subconsciously worse about themselves when thinking about their significant other’s success than men who thought about their romantic partner's failure. Although the men said they felt fine, the test of implicit self-esteem revealed otherwise.

The final two experiments were conducted online and involved 657 U.S. participants, 284 of whom were men. They were asked to think about a time when their partner had succeeded or failed. For example, some participants were asked to think about their partner's social success or failure, such as being a charming host at a party, or a more intellectual achievement or failure.

In one study, participants were told to think of a time when their partner succeeded or failed at something that they, too, had succeeded or failed. After comparing all the results, the researchers found that it didn't matter whether the achievements or failures were social, intellectual or related to participants' own successes or failures - men still felt subconsciously worse about themselves if their partner succeeded, rather than if she failed.

Moreover, the men's implicit self-esteem was bruised even harder when they thought about a time that their partner succeeded at something that had previously failed.

Researchers also looked at how relationship satisfaction affected self-esteem. Women in these experiments reported feeling better about their relationship when they thought about a time their partner succeeded, instead of a time when their partner failed. However, the men did not feel the same.

SOURCE: Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Gender Differences in Implicit Self-Esteem Following a Romantic Partner’s Success or Failure (August 5, 2013), Kate A. Ratliff and Shigehiro Ois; doi: 10.1037/a003376