NEW YORK (MainStreet) Men are competitive, self-involved animals with low self-esteem. Women, on the other hand, are nurturing, rational human beings loaded with self confidence. Check the byline. It's a guy writing this. But I didn't do the research.
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Kate Ratliff, Ph.D., of the University of Florida, has done the research and finds that men may not particularly revel in the success of wives or girlfriends. In fact, the study, published by the American Psychological Association, says men's subconscious self-esteem may be battered when their spouse or girlfriend succeeds.
"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," says Ratliff. "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."
In five separate experiments involving 896 people, the research indicated that it "didn't matter if their significant other was an excellent hostess or intelligent, men were more likely to feel subconsciously worse about themselves when their female partner succeeded than when she failed."
However, women were not subject to a change in self-esteem by their male partner's successes or failures. Dr. Ratliff says how that might be explained.
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"One possibility is that, because men are generally more competitive than women, men are more likely than women to interpret a partner's success as indicating that they are not as good as their partner," she says. "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."
In one study, 32 couples from the University of Virginia were given what was described as a "test of problem solving and social intelligence" and then told that their partner scored either in the top or bottom 12% of all university students.
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Hearing that their partner scored high or low on the test did not affect what the researchers called a participants' explicit self-esteem, or how they felt.
But participants were also given a test to determine how they felt subconsciously about their partners' performance, which the researchers called implicit self-esteem. In this test, a computer tracked how quickly people associate good and bad words with themselves. For example, participants with high implicit self-esteem who see the word "me" on a computer screen are more likely to associate it with words such as "excellent" or "good" rather than "bad" or "dreadful." Click here to see a sample of the test.
Men who believed that their partner scored in the top 12% demonstrated significantly lower implicit self-esteem than men who believed their partner scored in the bottom 12%. Participants did not receive information about their own scores.
Findings were similar in two more studies conducted in the Netherlands. The Netherlands boasts one of the smallest gender gaps in labor, education and politics, according to the United Nations' Gender Equality Index. However, like American men, Dutch men who thought about their romantic partner's success subconsciously felt worse about themselves than men who thought about their partner's failure, according to both studies. They said they felt fine but the test of implicit self-esteem revealed otherwise.
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In the final two experiments, conducted online, 657 U.S. participants, 284 of whom were men, were asked to think about a time when their partner had succeeded or failed. In one experiment an element of competition was introduced: participants were told to think of a time when their partner succeeded or failed at something at which they had also succeeded or failed.
When comparing all the results, the researchers found that it didn't matter if the achievements or failures were social, intellectual or related to participants' own successes or failures men subconsciously still felt worse about themselves when their partner succeeded. However, men's implicit self-esteem took a bigger hit when the success or failure was competitive in nature.
Researchers also looked at how relationship satisfaction affected self-esteem. Women in these experiments reported feeling better about their relationship when they thought about a time their partner succeeded -- but men did not.
Ratliff says the research might have dating and relationship implications.
"A romantic partner's success in her life not only could lower men's implicit self-esteem but also could alter men's perception about their romantic relationship in the future."
--Written by Hal M. Bundrick for MainStreet