We’re More Willing To Engage With Sexists If We Think They Are Intelligent

By Emily Reynolds

For many readers, the idea of interacting with an overtly sexist person probably doesn’t sound particularly appealing — yet in many instances we do continue to engage with those who espouse sexist views. A new study, authored by Elena Agadullina from Russia’s National Research University Higher School of Economics, finds one factor that could determine whether we are likely to want to interact with a perpetrator of sexism: their intelligence. Participants preferred to interact with intelligent people — even those who had engaged in sexist behaviour.

Participants, 348 Russian students, were sorted into three conditions. All read descriptions of a man named Peter; in one condition, Peter was described as having an IQ of 130; in another, Peter had a below average IQ of 100; and in the control condition participants received no information about his intelligence.

They were then separated into further conditions. In the sexist condition, Peter was described as someone who believes that women are not as intelligent as men, and that they should therefore work only on household chores, while participants in the non-sexist condition read that Peter believed women should have equal rights and opportunities. Finally, participants indicated how willing they would be to develop a relationship with Peter, be friends with him, or interact with him in everyday life (these were combined into a single measure of willingness to interact with Peter in the future).

Perceived intelligence played a significant role in participants’ choices about interactions. Overall, participants would rather interact with a non-sexist person than a sexist one. But intelligence mattered: they were more willing to interact with a sexist person when they read that he was intelligent than when they read he wasn’t. In fact, participants’ responses showed that they would rather engage with an intelligent sexist over an unintelligent non-sexist. This was the case for both men and women.

The second study looked at different manifestations of sexism. Participants read a story about either Peter or a woman named Sofia, who were described as either highly intelligent or unintelligent. They then either heard that Peter/Sofia had forced a young colleague into a sexual relationship or had innocently invited a colleague to a café to discuss work, before answering the same questions about interactions as in the first study.

This time, participants also completed a measure of their own sexism, indicating how much they agreed with six statements related to hostile sexism (such as “women seek to gain power by gaining control over men”) and benevolent sexism (“women should be cherished and protected by men”).

Again, participants preferred to interact with an intelligent harasser than a non-intelligent one. Interestingly, participants in the no sexual harassment condition were no more or less likely to want to engage with an intelligent than an unintelligent person.

Participants with high levels of hostile sexist attitudes themselves, on the other hand, were more likely to want to interact with an unintelligent woman, and in particular with an unintelligent woman harasser. This may be because the unintelligent woman character fit neatly within their worldview rather than challenging the status quo in any way.

One of Agadullina’s suggestions as to why participants preferred intelligent sexists is that people see sexism as a more malleable characteristic than intelligence: they may therefore make calculations about whether or not to interact with a sexist person on those grounds, believing they have the potential to change. Future research could look more closely at why knowing that an individual is intelligent overrides our better judgement about sexual harassment and sexism, as well as what other traits may also act as mitigating factors. Replicating the work in different cultural settings could also prove interesting.

Although the research focused on individual interactions, writing off sexism due to someone’s perceived intelligence has a wider impact: it can send the message that sexist behaviour is not particularly important if the perpetrator has other desirable characteristics. Continuing social and political work that highlights the importance of justice and equity for everyone remains key.

When sexism is not a problem: The role of perceived intelligence in willingness to interact with someone who is sexist

Emily Reynolds is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest