A new series of studies found men and women’s self-esteem reacts very differently to their partners’ success. The studies, conducted both in the U.S. and in Europe, tested men and women’s conscious (explicit) and unconscious (implicit) self-esteem reactions to situations in which their partner failed or succeeded at a variety of tasks.
In one study, couples were given a test indicative of “problem solving and social intelligence.” Participants were told their partner scored either in the top or bottom 12 percent of the responders (they were not told their own scores). Their self-esteem was then measured by explicitly asking them how they felt (a measure of conscious or explicit self-esteem) and by a computer task that examined how rapidly people associate good or bad words to themselves (i.e., a measure of unconscious or implicit self-esteem).
Women reported no changes in explicit self-esteem, whether their male partners succeeded or failed and the computer task indicated their unconscious self-esteem did not change either. Men also reported no changes in explicit (conscious) self-esteem whether their female partners succeeded or failed but the test of implicit (unconscious) self-esteem revealed something quite different. Men who were told their female partner succeeded at the task (scored in the top 12 percent) had significantly lower implicit self-esteem scores than men who were told their female partner failed.
A second series of studies conducted in the Netherlands asked people to think of a time their partner succeeded or failed at tasks such as being a good party host as well as more intellectually based achievements. Findings were similar to those of the first study. Women’s explicit and implicit self-esteem were unaffected by their male partner’s success or failure, regardless of the nature of the task. While men reported feeling no different consciously, but subconsciously, their self-esteem took a hit when their female partner succeeded, whether the task was social or intellectual.
Clearly men are threatened by their female partner’s success. But why? And why are women not threatened when their male partner succeeds?
The researchers suggest that because men typically present themselves as being more competent than they actually are, being reminded of their partner’s success might threaten their own self-views and even trigger fears their female partner will leave them. Indeed, in one of the studies, men who were asked to think about a time their partner was successful were also less optimistic about the relationship than men who were asked to think about a time their female partner failed.
Another possibility the researchers raise is that women are socialized to be supportive more often than men, and therefore the success of their partner fell within the range of societal gender roles for women but not for men. This notion found support in that women who thought about a time their partner succeeded reported greater relationship satisfaction, while men who thought about a time their female partner succeeded did not.
Fascinating and compelling as these findings are, and bad as they look for us men, women should keep the following in mind before they glare at their boyfriends and husbands and banish them to the doghouse. Men’s conscious response to their partner’s success was the same as women’s—they did not feel explicitly threatened by it at all. The issue was their unconscious responses.
Men experienced an unconscious threat to their self-esteem when women succeeded, true. But there is a large body of research demonstrating that unconscious threats impact us even when we consciously disagree with them. For example, women do better on tests of mathematical ability when men are not in the room because the presence of men reminds them of the stereotype that women are not as good at math as men. That subtle, unconscious reminder alone is sufficient to lower women’s confidence and performance when taking a math test. My guess is a very similar unconscious dynamic was playing out in these current experiments.
Self-esteem is a tricky thing. It vacillates up and down on an hourly basis, it’s affected by all kinds of explicit feedback from our environment, and it’s impacted by subtle unconscious dynamics of which we are entirely unaware. The best we can do to stabilize these fluctuations in our feelings of self-worth is to pay attention to them and to take steps to strengthen our self-esteem when it is low.
For more about boosting our self-esteem when it’s hurting check out the chapters on Self-Esteem, Rejection, and Failure in, Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt, and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries (Hudson Street Press, 2013).
Copyright 2013 Guy Winch