Janice Kelly conducted a field study to find out.
Male research assistants waited near two university building entrances and looked out for men and women approaching. On some trials the research assistant went through a door adjacent to the arriving person (so that the person had to open the door for themselves). On other trials, the research assistant leaped into action, held open the door for the approaching person, then stepped aside for them to enter first. Once inside, the targeted men and women were approached by a female assistant bearing a clipboard. She asked them questions about their self-esteem and self-efficacy (measured by their agreement with statements like "I feel that I have a number of good qualities" and "I can learn almost anything if I set my mind to it"). In total 221 people were tested this way (122 women).
Men who had the door held open for them scored lower on self-esteem and self-efficacy than men who didn't have the door held open for them. Women's self-esteem and self-efficacy scores were no different regardless of whether a man held a door open for them or not.
McCarty and Kelly said their findings are likely explained by the fact that men holding open doors for men is socially unusual, and could be taken by the recipient of the gesture as implying that they look like they are needy and vulnerable. This likely clashes with their masculine self-concept and makes them feel deflated. Women, by contrast, are more used to men holding doors open for them, and aren't so bothered by the connotations (although note there is a literature on the potentially harmful effects of benevolent sexism).
The researchers' interpretation is based on the idea that door-holding for men is socially unusual (or in the jargon, "non normative"). This was backed up by some earlier observation and survey work. When research assistants spent time observing university entrances, they found that men and women were equally likely to have the door held for them by the person passing through an entrance ahead of them, but that women more often than men had the door held for them in a chivalrous manner, in which the door-opening person steps aside and lets the recipient of the gesture pass through first. This chivalrous door-holding was the form used in the field study. A further survey of male and female students also found that they thought it was more typical for both types of door-holding to be performed for women than for men.
"This work demonstrates that simple but unexpected helping behaviours as fleeting and seemingly innocuous as door holding can have unforeseen negative consequences," the researchers said. "Thus, this work contributes to a growing literature on the consequences of helping for the recipients of help, as well as the growing literature on the influence of seemingly inconsequential everyday social behaviours."
Critics might point out that it was a shame the researchers didn't look at the effect of door-opening by women as well as by men. Perhaps the adverse effects on men's self-esteem were due to receiving help from a member of the same sex, and perhaps women would have shown these effects too if women had been doing the door opening. For similar reasons it would be have been favourable if, inside the buildings, both male and female research assistants had asked the questions about self-esteem and self-efficacy. Finally, future research needs to examine social context - for instance, would men still experience a dent to their self-esteem if a male subordinate opened the door for them?
Megan McCarty and Janice R. Kelly (2014). When door holding harms: gender and the consequences of non-normative help. Social Influence DOI: 10.1080/15534510.2013.869252
Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.