The “dark triad” of personality traits — narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism — do not make for the nicest individuals. People who score highly on the dark triad are vain, callous and manipulative. They adopt a so-called “fast-life” strategy, characterised by impulsivity, opportunism and selfishness. Such individuals can succeed in the workplace, while failing to get on with others. They’re also more likely to cheat on their partners, and are deemed more alluring in speed-dating sessions.
Though these traits can bring advantages to the individual, they are clearly detrimental to those around them. So it’s important to understand what fosters them. Could particular attitudes in society, for example, help to encourage these dark traits?
A new study, published in Personality and Individual Differences, concludes that this may in fact be the case. Melissa Gluck at the University of Florida and her colleagues gathered evidence suggesting that sexism — “and the socially-supported, unearned male power and privilege that sexism reflects” — is linked to higher scores on measures of the dark triad. “If scholars can demonstrate that these malevolent traits are partly learned by growing up in sexist cultures, agents of personal and social change can help people recognise, understand, alter and replace these malevolent aspects of humanity,” the researchers write.
Psychology can help people one person at a time, but it also holds the promise of changing society at a mass scale, through campaigns to change attitudes and behaviour. One such endeavour is the development of programmes to reduce the rates of sexual assault of women on university campuses. But in a literature review in Aggression and Violent Behavior, researchers from the University of California make the case that such programmes may not just be ineffective, but counterproductive.
In a ranking of genuinely important YouTube videos to have gone viral, this one (see above) from 2014 places high: it shows over 100 instances of harassment endured by a woman wearing a hidden camera as she walked around New York City for ten hours, including comments, stares, winks and whistles.
The video was posted in 2014 by the domestic violence activist group Hollaback! to highlight the prevalence of this kind of behaviour. As individual testimony, it was powerful. But, critics could argue, it was just one woman, on just one day. This is an argument they cannot use about the results of a new study, published in the British Journal of Social Psychology, which the researchers, led by Elise Holland at the University of Melbourne in Australia, believe is the first to capture just how common sexual harassment and “objectification” is in the daily lives of young women – and to show the possible impact on how women think about themselves.
“You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.” Donald Trump, 2016 Republican Party nominee for US president, speaking in 2005 (full transcript).
The causes of sexual aggression are many, but anecdotal evidence (for example, as implied in the above quote), and research-based evidence, suggests that at least part of it has to do with when men overestimate women’s levels of sexual interest. A new study in the Psychology of Violence finds that men with a history of sexual aggression are especially likely to make this kind of misjudgment, in part because they focus on inappropriate cues, such as a woman’s attractiveness, rather than on her actual emotions. But promisingly, the research also suggests that it’s possible, through practice, to reduce this bias. This is an important finding considering previous research has shown that information-based educational programmes designed to reduce sexual aggression (through challenging rape myths, for example) are relatively ineffective. Continue reading “Training men to judge women’s sexual interest more accurately”→
Sexist behaviour is a way some men use to signal they are “one of the lads”, mistakenly assuming that the lads are more sexist than they really are. Encouraging men to take a visible stand against sexism might help break this cycle, and a new study road-tests an intervention that uses this approach to change sexist attitudes in male undergrad students. The data show the intervention met some goals – specifically a decrease in overall sexist attitudes – but fell short of others, illustrating the difficulties of attitude change.
The intervention group, 23 men in total, were seated in groups of around four and presented with sexist statements via audio and text that they were to imagine were being spoken by a male figure seated on a chair at the end of the room. These experimenter-created statements covered benevolent sexism (“I can’t believe it when guys let their girlfriends go to parties by themselves…It is every man’s responsibility to take care of and defend the pretty little things”); hostile sexism (“The only reason they let women into college now is to keep men entertained”); and some particularly nasty rape-supportive statements, the mildest excerpt being: “I don’t understand how so many women get away with playing the ‘rape card’…”. Participants experienced all three types of statements and in each case, were asked to challenge the imagined speaker on their attitude, taking turns to give their retort.
Such confrontation of sexism was expected to provoke personal attitude change. The situation encourages an automatic attempt to reduce “cognitive dissonance” (the uncomfortable state of holding incompatible thoughts or beliefs): “if I can ridicule these sort of ideas uttered by another person,” the participants might think to themselves, “then surely I wouldn’t hold any such myself”. Additionally, hearing the other participants speak out against sexism could correct assumptions about the ubiquity of sexism within men. The intervention also involved a piece of homework – composing a confrontational letter to a sexist peer – which participants handed in two weeks later at the close of the study.
When comparing against a control condition (men in this group went through the same process but with the sexism theme swapped out for assertiveness training), the intervention group did show a significant decrease in overall sexism, measured by questionnaire scores taken pre- and post-study. However, the effect was not large, and when examined separately in its two sub-scales of benevolent sexism and hostile sexism, neither difference reached significance. Furthermore, the intervention had no effect on the men’s endorsement of rape-supportive attitudes. Thankfully support for these views were pretty low to begin with, but they didn’t begin at rock bottom – we know this because support for them did drop significantly, but by the same amount for both the intervention and the control group.
Lastly, the study was expected to change people’s assumptions about other men’s sexism, also measured pre- and post-study. Pre-study, participants on average rated other men as more sexist than themselves – suggesting some men may indeed act with (or fail to act against) sexism due to a false sense of sexist social norms – but the intervention didn’t shift these assumptions.
Overall then, this intervention had some success, but the disappointing caveats perhaps go to show just how hard attitude change can be. It may be that a more intensive version of the current programme is needed for changing attitudes towards rape, and that other methods are required to re-calibrate those dangerously inaccurate assumptions about sexism’s hold on male minds. But let’s not be too downbeat about the current results: they do at least show that the experience of being called on to challenge casual sexism is effective in helping some men begin to address their own attitudes.
_________________________________ Kilmartin, C., Semelsberger, R., Dye, S., Boggs, E., & Kolar, D. (2015). A Behavior Intervention to Reduce Sexism in College Men Gender Issues, 32 (2), 97-110 DOI: 10.1007/s12147-014-9130-1
Now Kris Mescher and Laurie Rudman have shown that this link is particularly strong for men who are ashamed of their bodies. “Such men may be under chronic masculinity threat, making them more sensitive to acute instances,” they write.
A first investigation involved 127 male heterosexual undergrads recruited for what they thought was a study about effective remote teamwork. They each filled out a personality questionnaire and submitted their photo, ostensibly to be seen by the attractive female team-mate they’d been allocated to work with, who was located elsewhere.
Half the men were then told that there was a computer malfunction, so they wouldn’t be able to proceed with this part of the study. They acted as controls. The other half were told that their female partner had chosen not to work with them. She’d apparently been tipped off that this was really a dating study. And in a note passed to the rejected participants, she explained: “I’m really not attracted to this guy. He’s not my type at all and I don’t want to have to go out with him.”
Afterwards, all the men answered questions about how they felt (including how sad, insulted and angry), their body shame, their proneness to shame in general, and their “rape proclivity.” This last measure asked the men to say how likely it was that they would be aroused by, attracted to, or likely to commit, rape or other forms of sexual aggression if they knew there was no chance they’d get caught.
Among the men who felt bad after the rejection, it was specifically those who scored high on body shame who showed increased rape proclivity. These were men who agreed with statements like “I am ashamed by the size and shape of my buttocks,” and disagreed with statements like “Overall I am comfortable with how my body looks.”
The researchers said these initial results “supported our expectation that female rejecters are at increased risk of retaliation from men high on body shame who feel threatened by the rejection.”
A second experiment with 214 male heterosexual participants was similar, but this time they were rejected by a potential team-mate who thought they were gay. “Looking at his profile,” said the team-mate in a note read by the rejected participants, “I get the impression he is gay. We won’t work well together if he likes men.” This time the rejection came either from a woman (no photo this time, so her attractiveness was unknown) or a man.
Again, male participants who felt bad after this rejection showed evidence of heightened sexual aggression, but only if they scored highly on body shame, and only if they were rejected by a female team-mate. This time the measure of sexual aggression was the men’s choice of photos to be used for a future study involving female participants. Those men upset by the rejection, and who had high body shame, tended to choose more photos or images that depicted rape or sexual violence toward women, rather than images involving male-on-male violence.
This study doesn’t speak to why some men experienced negative emotions after rejection and others didn’t. But for those who did, the results suggest strongly that body shame is an important risk factor for resentment manifesting as sexual aggression. This may seem “counter-intuitive” the researchers said, given that prominent rape theories propose that arrogant men with machismo pose the greatest risk to women.
Mescher and Rudman admitted their research lacked realism. “There is a sobering gap between actual rape and our attempt to model the consequences of social situations that threaten men’s masculinity and place women at risk,” they said. Nonetheless, the researchers believe their findings show that “men’s body shame may be a key component in male-on-female sexual violence”. They urge other researchers to investigate men’s body image “with the same tenacity” with which women’s body image has been studied in the past.
_________________________________ Mescher K, & Rudman LA (2014). Men in the Mirror: The Role of Men’s Body Shame in Sexual Aggression. Personality & social psychology bulletin PMID: 24839983
Benevolent sexism describes insidious behaviours and beliefs that reinforce the idea that women are less capable than men and need their help. It’s a controversial idea. It’s not always clear if an act, such as a man opening a door for a woman, is simply polite or an example of benevolent sexism. Another issue is whether or not benevolent sexism is harmful. A new study led by Juliet Wakefield claims to show that exposure to benevolent sexism can put women off asking for help. If true, it’s a finding that has obvious implications for the workplace, especially in contexts where health and safety could be compromised.
Eighty-six female undergrads arrived one at a time at a psychology lab for what they thought was an investigation into sex differences in reasoning and problem-solving. A female research assistant welcomed them and explained that they’d be interacting with a remote research team via computer. She then went and sat behind a partition in the same room. The three-person remote team were either all male or all female (this was clear from their names), and they proceeded to ask some basic questions of the participant via the computer.
Next, the research assistant’s mobile phone rang. It was obvious from her end of the conversation that it was her male plumber “Joe”. He’d moved some items in her house without asking – an act that the research assistant blamed either on his impatience or his sexist beliefs. After her call, the research assistant apologised to the participant, either saying “Sorry about that, my plumber is so impatient” or “Sorry about that – my plumber is such a typical man – he thinks that women are incapable of doing anything on their own!”.
After this, the participants began a 90-second anagram challenge on the computer. When the time was up, they had the chance to request help from the remote research team for any items they hadn’t solved. They also answered questions about their mood.
The key finding is that participants exposed to the story about the sexist plumber asked for less help on average, compared with participants who were told the plumber was merely impatient (they sought help with 48 per cent vs. 56 per cent of unsolved items). This held regardless of the sex of the remote research team (the source of the help). Another finding was that for participants exposed to the sexist plumber story, the more help they sought, the worst their mood. Conforming to the stereotype of the needy female appeared to make them feel rubbish about themselves.
“All in all,” the researchers concluded, “our findings underline the point that the benevolent sexism in everyday banal interactions can be consequential for women’s emotions and behaviour, and is therefore anything but banal.”
Critics may feel that the explicit view to which some of the participants were exposed – that “women are incapable of doing anything on their own” (emphasis added) – was not particularly subtle; that the results therefore say more about out and out sexism rather than benevolent sexism. It would also have been preferable to include a third condition in which the participants were not exposed to any overheard phone conversation. _________________________________ Wakefield, J., Hopkins, N., and Greenwood, R. (2012). Thanks, But No Thanks: Women’s Avoidance of Help-Seeking in the Context of a Dependency-Related Stereotype Psychology of Women Quarterly, 36 (4), 423-431 DOI: 10.1177/0361684312457659
What could be wrong with a gentleman opening a door for a lady? According to some social psychologists, such acts endorse gender stereotypes: the idea that women are weak and need help; that men are powerful patriarchs. Now a study has looked at how women are perceived when they accept or reject an act of so-called “benevolent sexism”* and it finds that they’re caught in a double-bind. Women who accept help from a man are seen as warmer, but less competent. Women who reject help are seen as more competent, but cold.
Across three studies Julia Becker and her colleagues presented dozens of German students with a vignette (either in prose or as a comic strip) in which a male office worker offers to help a female colleague set up a computer server. As he makes his offer, he says: “Oh, the network server, that’s so difficult and frustrating for a woman to grapple with. Let me do it for you.” Some students read a version in which the woman accepts the offer; others read a version in which she rejected it, saying “I can do it. It’s not a problem for a woman”.
If the woman rejected the offer she was rated as more competent, but less warm (compared to a story version in which her reply wasn’t revealed). If she accepted the offer, she was judged as more warm, but less competent. These effects also influenced the participants’ decisions over her job suitability. If she rejected the offer of help she was judged less suitable for a care-home job that depends on emotional skills. If she accepted the offer then she was judged less suitable for a managerial position.
By contrast, men aren’t caught in the same double-bind. Other participants read a different version of the story in which a woman offered technical help to a man. In this case, participants judged the man as more competent, but no less warm, if he rejected the offer.
An important caveat was identified once the researchers began measuring the participants’ endorsement of benevolent sexism, as revealed by their agreement with statements like “Women should be cherished and protected by men”. The perception of an independent woman as competent but cold was only formed by those participants who endorsed benevolent sexism.
Another aspect the researchers looked at was perceptions of the help-giver. Here they found that advocates of benevolent sexism perceived a male help-giver as particularly warm and competent when his offer of help was accepted.
“Nowadays, sexist behaviour has become more subtle because of changing social norms, and patronising offers come in subtle guises,” the researchers said. “This exacerbates a woman’s dilemma about how to respond and increases the likelihood that she will be viewed as ‘cold’ if she declines paternalistic help.” _________________________________
Becker, J., Glick, P., Ilic, M., and Bohner, G. (2011). Damned if she does, damned if she doesn’t: Consequences of accepting versus confronting patronizing help for the female target and male actor. European Journal of Social Psychology DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.823
*There’s a lot of resistance to the idea of benevolent sexism. Find out what happened when lead author of this research, Julia Becker, appeared on BBC Radio Five (the column originally appeared in The Psychologist, the monthly magazine of the British Psychological Society).
When sex researchers compare men and women’s genital arousal in response to various stimuli, they generally find that men tend only to be aroused by stimuli that match their declared sexual preferences and subjective feelings, whereas women tend to be aroused by a broad array of sexual material (including scenes involving chimps), irrespective of their declared preferences and subjective feelings. A new study by Kelly Suschinsky and Martin Lalumiere tests the claim, which will surely prove controversial, that this pattern of responding in women is an evolutionary vestige which served in the past to protect women from the genital injury that can come from unwanted sex.
‘Substantial ethnographic, historical, and comparative evidence suggests that the threat of unwanted sexual activity has been considerable over human evolutionary history,’ the researchers said. Their specific proposal is that women’s indiscriminate genital arousal leads to lubrication which reduces the likelihood of injury occurring when unwanted sexual encounters take place.
To test this claim, Suschinsky and Lalumiere presented 15 heterosexual men and 15 heterosexual women (average age in their early twenties), all currently in a sexual relationship, with 14 two-minute audio recordings of various narratives read by a woman from her own perspective. The narratives varied in whether or not a sexual encounter occurred between a man and a woman, whether or not violence took place, and whether or not the activities were consensual.
Consistent with past research, the men’s genital arousal was far more specific, tending to occur most strongly in response to a consensual, non-violent sexual encounter, which was also the scenario they said they found most arousing. By contrast, the women’s genital arousal was far more uniform across all the sexual scenarios. There was one anomaly – their genital arousal to non-consensual, but otherwise nonviolent, sex was lower than for consensual, non-violent sex, but was still significantly higher than their response to neutral scenarios. Like the men, the women’s subjective feeling of arousal was far more targeted, being much higher for the consensual, non-violent scenario than the others. Both sexes reported finding the violent or non-consensual scenarios unpleasant and anxiety provoking.
Suschinsky and Lalumiere said their results support what they call the ‘preparation hypothesis’, adding to past research showing, for example, that some women report experiencing genital lubrication during rape. The researchers acknowledged some limitations in their study. In particular, the scenarios were all told from a woman’s perspective. However, they said that past research had shown men tend to find this narrative perspective particularly arousing, so this methodological imbalance is unlikely to explain the results. The researchers also acknowledged that their sample were young and sexually active, and likely to be fairly sexually liberal given that they’d volunteered for a study of this kind. ‘We recommend that this study be replicated with a larger and more diverse sample,’ they said.
Given the sensitivity of this research topic, and in particular the possibility that its message might be exploited to justify immoral acts, it’s worth heeding the words of Mary Roach in her book Bonk:
‘It is important to remember,’ she writes, that ‘it is the mind that speaks to a woman’s heart, not the vaginal walls… Rape offers a plangent illustration of this fact. I learned in a paper by Roy Levin that rape victims occasionally report having responded physically, even though their emotional state was a mixture of fear, anger and revulsion. … Regardless of the mechanisms that may or may not explain a rape victim’s physical state, a rapist’s defense based upon evidence of arousal has, to quote Levin, “no intrinsic validity and should be disregarded”.’
Suschinsky, K., and Lalumiere, M. (2010). Prepared for Anything?: An Investigation of Female Genital Arousal in Response to Rape Cues. Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797610394660