Do successful women make men feel bad?
A new study claims men feel better when their partners fail.
September 9, 2013 - 22:02 — Heidi Scrimgeour
A new American study suggests men feel better when their partners fail. What's that all about? A study published by the American Psychological Association found that men subconsciously feel bad about themselves when their partners succeed. Researchers studied 896 people in five experiments and concluded that men were more likely to feel subconsciously good about themselves when their female partner failed than when she succeeded. 32 couples from the University of Virginia were asked to complete a test involving problem solving and social intelligence, and subsequently told that their partner had either scored in the top or bottom 12 percent of all university students. Having a partner who scored high or low on the test did not affect the participants’ explicit self-esteem (how they said they felt) but participants were also given a test to determine how they felt subconsciously about their partners’ performance (implicit self-esteem). The men who believed that their partner had scored in the top 12 percent demonstrated significantly lower implicit self-esteem than the men who believed their partner scored in the bottom 12 percent. Intriguingly, women’s self-esteem was not affected by their male partners’ successes or failures. The study’s lead author, Kate Ratliff, PhD, of the University of Florida said: “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. 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 researchers found that the nature of the women’s achievements or failures weren’t significant and there was no correlation between them and the participants’ own successes or failures — men simply subconsciously felt worse about themselves when their partner succeeded, and better when she failed. They also felt worse still when they thought about a time when their partner succeeded in something at which they themselves had failed. It seems unthinkable that men might harbour resentment over the achievements of the women in their lives, but perhaps that’s not what the data really uncovers. What’s key is that the men involved in the research said they felt fine but the test of their implicit self-esteem revealed otherwise. Perhaps what this reveals is not something heinous about men and their perception of female success, but how deeply conditioned many men are to measure their own worth on the basis of competition and rivalry. Writing for The Sydney Morning Herald, Katherine Feeney says the research left her disappointed. She explains: “Disappointed that men still want to stand in front of women, and disappointed that women still let them. Why? Can’t we help it? Can’t something be done? My mother and father brought me up to believe that I should look to my own success as a source of happiness. They taught me to have faith in myself before putting faith in others. And they never encouraged me to be a woman behind a man. In fact, they encouraged me to sit front row and centre. But I know it will be hard for our kids to ignore the vast amount of messaging that reinforces the idea women should watch while men achieve. Or that feminine success should play second fiddle to masculine ego.” Perhaps it’s not as easy for men to unshackle themselves from that messaging as it is for women. The authors of the report write:
“There is an idea that women are allowed to bask in the reflected glory of her male partner and to be the ‘woman behind the successful man’, but the reverse is not true for men.” Business coach Eve Menezes Cunningham of Feel Better Every Day agrees: “Men have long been socialised to feel like it's their role to bring home the bacon. So while it’s easy for a man to...
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