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Does Your Partner Patronize You?

New research shows the downside of having a partner who patronizes.

Few TV ads have caused as much public debate as the December 2019 release of a Peloton television commercial featuring “Grace from Boston” showing gratitude for her partner’s purchase, one year earlier, of an app-connected, pricey, Peloton bike. As Grace pedals away on the sleek indoor cycle, she can’t say enough good things about how happy she is that her partner made it possible for her to change her life in this dramatic fashion.

Almost as soon as the ad was released, complaints about the ad surfaced on social media pointing to its implication that Grace (who was thin and fit to begin with) needed her partner to provide her with a means to become even more thin and fit. If she wanted to get fit, why couldn’t she buy her own bike? And since she’s already in good shape, does the ad suggest that she needed to please her partner by working off a few more pounds?

In defense of the ad, others in social media argued that the partner was simply giving her a very nice gift that, because of its expense, she might not have decided to buy herself. Perhaps he was trying to give her a way to avoid having to drag herself to the gym or rely on the vagaries of the weather to be able to ride outside Boston known, of course, for heavy traffic and a winter’s worth of impassable snowy streets.

These publicly waged debates aside, what does psychological science have to offer as a perspective? As it turns, out, the social psychology of sex roles is highly vocal on the matter. Research on sex roles documents the harm that can be caused to a woman’s sense of self-esteem and ability to be productive by what’s known as “benevolent sexism.” In contrast to harmful sexism, which aggressively and openly denigrates women, in this “kinder and gentler” sexism, a man may provide a verbal pat on the head for a woman’s succeeding by virtue of just doing her job.

In an article that includes “Clever Girl” in the title, University of Essex (UK)’s Veronica Lamarche and colleagues (2020) state that “the consequences of covert forms of sexism remain serious even though this type of sexism is often dismissed as well-intentioned, likable, and even socially acceptable and desirable.” The authors go on to note that benevolent sexism is actually malevolent “as it may appear supportive while simultaneously reinforcing and extolling the virtues of traditional gender roles, responsibilities, and capabilities” (p. 1).

Benevolent (covert) sexism, the authors argue, is linked to a host of serious social issues that include barriers to women’s success in the workplace to victim-blaming following a sexual assault. Research on benevolent sexism to date, as Lamarche et al. point out, tends to be limited to self-reported outcomes, such as how women feel when they’re treated in this pat-on-the-head manner.

In order to overcome the limitations of self-report research, the British authors devised an investigation intended to examine directly how benevolent sexism affects a woman’s performance on a cognitive task while she was performing it. While performing this task, the women completing it were hooked up to a monitor tracking their cardiovascular reactivity, allowing the researchers to do an end run around those self-report measures and get directly to the physiological impact of exposure to benevolent sexist feedback. Furthermore, by taking constant measurements throughout the task, the research team avoided the disadvantages of interrupting participants in the middle of a task to ask them to report how they’re feeling.

The 73 college-aged women in the UK study completed a challenging verbal reasoning task, chosen by the authors because it is “a stereotype-consistent domain” for women. While performing the task, their cardiovascular reactivity was continuously assessed via an electrocardiogram (ECG). A female experimenter ran the participants through the task, but participants were given experimentally-manipulated feedback after the first trial about their performance by a male, pre-recorded, voice. All participants heard the same first paragraph of false feedback noting that they “struggled with this test so far.”

In the benevolent sexism feedback, the male voice went on to state that “You seem like a very smart girl because your answers showed a lot of creativity. I know it’s hard not to get emotional during this type of test, but I’m sure you’ll do well on the next set of questions as long as you don’t let your nerves get the best of you.” In the non-sexist feedback, the male voice provided actual encouragement by stating that “You seem like a very smart person because your answers showed a lot of creativity. I know it’s hard to come up with answers during this type of test, but I’m sure you’ll do well on the next set of questions as long as you continue to think outside of the box.” You can see from these contrasting feedback messages that the sexist message and the non-sexist message differ in that one emphasizes a harmful feminine stereotype (that women get emotional) and the other more neutrally praises the participant’s creativity.

In comparing the women’s performance under the two conditions, the authors also controlled for a woman’s belief in sex role stereotypes as well as gender identification. With these controls in place, the findings on cardiovascular threat showed that, as predicted, participants operating in the benevolent sexism condition indeed showed signs of feeling more threatened in the form of heightened cardiovascular reactivity. The feedback, furthermore, didn’t lower their engagement in the task, as you might expect if they simply felt they should give up. Thus, although they were motivated to complete the task, the sexist feedback “undermined their perceived ability to reach that goal” (p. 7). Although not significant, there was a tendency for women in the benevolent sexism condition to perform more poorly on subsequent verbal reasoning trials after receiving the false feedback.

A manipulation check comparing hostile to benevolent sexism on a new set of participants involved having the male voice provide feedback that they “were very smart for a girl.” This feedback received more negative ratings than the benevolent feedback suggesting that women may perceive benevolent sexism positively compared to hostile sexism. Therefore, they would be less likely to become angered when exposed to it even though they may feel threatened or put down. Like our friend Grace in the Peloton ad, women may “appreciate” patronizing treatment even when it serves to poke holes into their self-confidence.

Because research on benevolent sexism focuses on women only, it’s not possible to know whether men who are given positively-framed messages about themselves that reinforce masculine stereotypes would also cause them to feel patronized. If you’re a woman and you’re patronizing your partner in this way, it’s possible that your behavior could deflate his self-confidence. The next time you praise him for doing well on a "typical" masculine task because he's such a "tough guy," consider that you may inadvertently be communicating a benevolent sexist message. At the same time, such patronizing remarks also maintain traditional sex-role stereotypes that can detract from your relationship.

To sum up, being treated in a patronizing manner seems, at least for women, to be a surefire way to cause them to feel stressed and threatened. These stereotypes are difficult to avoid, but once you’re aware of their potential impact, you can be better prepared to resist their impact on your ability to achieve fulfillment in achieving your major life goals.

Facebook image: MinDof/Shutterstock

References

Gul, P., & Kupfer, T. R. (2019). Benevolent sexism and mate preferences: Why do women prefer benevolent men despite recognizing that they can be undermining? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 45(1), 146–161. doi:10.1177/0146167218781000

Lamarche, VM., Seery, MD., Kondrak, CL., Saltsman, TL. and Streamer, L., (2020). Clever girl: Benevolent sexism and cardiovascular threat. Biological Psychology. 149, 107781-107781

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