Are men who hold traditional ideas of masculine honor more likely to respond aggressively to romantic rejection?
Many women will be familiar with this scene:
Tom is at a party. He notices a woman he finds attractive and attempts to catch her eye from across the room. After a few failed attempts of getting her to notice him, he walks over to her and introduces himself. They make small talk and after a while he asks her if he can have her number. She says no.
How does Tom respond? He could walk away. He could feel happy with himself for trying. Or he could react aggressively, calling the woman a name or even assaulting her.
In the wake of well-publicized examples of men aggressively retaliating against perceived rejection — for example, the case of Elliot Rodgers, the Californian student who murdered sorority members and the men he suspected of sleeping with them — some men have felt motivated to point out that #NotAllMen respond in this way. This less than tactful response inadvertently reveals that these men may have something in common with men like Rodgers after all: both seem to be acting to preserve their honor. The #NotAllMen crowd don’t want their gender to be painted as uniformly lacking in chivalry; men who retaliate violently when spurned may do so because they have internalized so-called “masculine honor beliefs”.
At least, that is, according to a team of psychologists at Kansas State University led by Evelyn Stratmoen. They had around 60 male and 60 female undergraduate students complete the Masculine Honor Beliefs Scale. The MHBS is a survey developed in the last couple of years to test whether a person endorses the idea that masculine honor should be defended. Respondents indicate how strongly they agree with statements such as “Physical aggression is always admirable and acceptable,” and “If a man is insulted, his manhood is insulted.”
Next, Stratmoen’s volunteers read a description of a man at a party: the same description you read at the top of this article. Afterwards, they read a list of Tom’s possible responses to his rejection, and rated how reasonable they thought each response was. Volunteers also rated how insulted Tom was likely to feel as a result of his rejection.
Stratmoen found that those who endorsed the masculine honor ideal were more likely to expect that Tom would feel insulted and less of a man, and to think it appropriate for Tom to respond aggressively, for example by grabbing the woman’s arm or calling her a slut.
Men tended to endorse masculine honor beliefs more strongly than women, as we might expect. But, perhaps more surprisingly, Stratmoen also found that the gender of the volunteer was unrelated to their perceptions of the appropriateness of Tom’s responses.
In a follow-up study, Stratmoen was able to show that public rejections were perceived to have a greater impact on Tom’s honor. What’s more, those who endorsed honor beliefs expected Tom to respond aggressively to rejection, unless his response was likely to be witnessed. This perhaps illustrates the strength of the taboo against male violence toward women, although Stratmoen and her colleagues note that those who endorse honor beliefs are much less likely to expect Tom to simply walk away from the woman. This suggests that:
a “man of honor” is expected to “do something” when romantically rejected — merely “walking away” and accepting the rejection is not an option.
The researchers concede that their research cannot reveal whether men’s aggressive responses are intended primarily as a form of retribution, with the aim of punishing the woman, or as a way of restoring the man’s own reputation, and call for future studies to address this outstanding question.
Stratmoen, E., Greer, M. M., Martens, A. L., & Saucier, D. A. (2018). What, I′m not good enough for you? Individual differences in masculine honor beliefs and the endorsement of aggressive responses to romantic rejection. Personality and Individual Differences, 123, 151–162. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2017.10.018
One in five women attending college in the US experience sexual assault. Sexual assaults are often perpetrated by persons known to the victim, or with whom the victim has a prior relationship. Because of this, many have suggested that one way to combat sexual coercion is to establish clear rules around consent: sexual contact should only occur between individuals who have expressly agreed to it.
Any effort to decrease the incidence of sexual assault should be lauded. But some have resisted the calls for explicit consent — not because they are arguing in favor of sexual assault, but rather because they feel that repeated checking of consent is unnecessary and introduces an oddly formal element into the otherwise messy business of love.
Put simply, saying “no” to sex is awkward. This may be because we are not used to bluntly refusing offers or forbidding the behavior of others. Such an approach is at odds with the way we normally conduct conversations. We have developed an immense set of rules, many of which differ from culture to culture, on how to deal with conflicts of interest. These rules govern what it is permissible to request, the proper way to respond to or evade requests, how to correctly express regret or thanks, and even when to be silent and what that silence means.
These complex rules mean it may be naive to expect that sexual consent can be negotiated with simple yes/no responses. Research shows that women often feel that saying “no” sounds rude or foolish, and that men can worry a “no” implies they find their partner unattractive.
So, how do college students really navigate consent?
Kristen Jozkowski and Tiffany Marcantonio of the University of Arkansas recruited over 1000 heterosexual cisgender students from two US universities: one in the South and one in the Midwest. The volunteers were asked how they would let their “potential sexual partners know if [they] were not going to consent … to have vaginal-penile intercourse with them”. The volunteers read a list of 21 responses and indicated how strongly they agreed with each one.
Analysis of the volunteers’ responses suggested there were three tactics used by students to refuse sex. These were direct verbal refusals, such as telling the partner “no” or otherwise talking about not wanting sex; direct nonverbal, such as keeping distance from the partner or stopping giving attention to the partner; and indirect nonverbal, such as using body language or “physical signals”.
Women reported using all three tactics more often than men, which conforms neatly to the stereotype of women as sexual gatekeepers: men were less likely to refuse sex. Direct nonverbal tactics were the most popular tactic, followed closely by direct verbal. Indirect nonverbal responses (those vague “physical signals”) were used less commonly by women, and men reported using them hardly at all.
Single men and women were more likely to report using direct nonverbal responses than were those who had a long-term partner. Those with and without a partner reported using direct verbal and indirect nonverbal tactics about equally. However, as the researchers themselves point out:
it is important to note that we asked college students to report how they would generally refuse sex. As such, we do not know the specific … situations they may have considered when answering these questions.
It’s also worth considering whether the volunteers’ responses accurately reflected how they negotiated consent. Perhaps, after being exposed to the debate surrounding consent, college students are aware that many campaigners advocate direct verbal refusals such as saying “no”. If so, they may have over-reported their use of this tactic, so as to respond in the socially approved manner.
The researchers suggest that their results may be useful in re-framing discussions with students about consent:
Programs that promote ‘‘no means no’’ may be well intended, but may do more harm than good by suggesting that it is one person’s responsibility to say no, even though … other nonverbal/implicit refusals are used and recognized by others. Taken together, university policies and educational efforts … could be adjusted to highlight the complexities and realities of sexual consent and refusal.
Marcantonio, T. L., Jozkowski, K. N., & Lo, W.-J. (in press). Beyond “just saying no”: a preliminary evaluation of strategies college students use to refuse sexual activity. Archives of Sexual Behavior. doi:10.1007/s10508–017–1130–2
What kind of man is more likely to commit sexual assault?
One possibility is that men who are impulsive — who seek to gratify their immediate desires without thought for the long-term consequences — may be more willing to coerce women into sex.
Young men, who are responsible for the majority of sexual assaults, tend to act rashly in all manner of circumstances. But is a man who drives dangerously, gambles, or is quick to lose his temper also more likely to sexually coerce? Or is sexual coercion linked specifically to impulsivity in the sexual domain?
A team of psychologists from Canada, led by Fannie Carrier Emond of the University of Montreal, decided to find out.
Around 100 men under the age of 35 completed a survey about sexual experiences, with questions about sexual coercion. For example, respondents were asked to indicate whether they had made unwanted sexual contact, or attempted or committed rape, and to identify the tactic they used to perpetrate the act (e.g. taking advantage of a position of authority or of the victim’s intoxication, or by physical force). Carrier Emond and her colleagues classified the men as perpetrators if they admitted to any form of coercion, or as non-perpetrators if they admitted to none. Forty-five of the men were classified as perpetrators, mostly because they had attempted to verbally pressure a woman into sex.
All the volunteers then took part in two discounting tasks. A discounting task is a measure of delayed gratification. A respondent is given a choice: receive a small reward now, or wait a while before receiving a larger reward. You may have heard of the marshmallow test — a type of discounting task often used with children. The child is shown a marshmallow and told that they can eat it now, or wait for 15 minutes after which they will receive two marshmallows. Only one third of young children are able to go the distance, and many gobble up the lone marshmallow as soon as the psychologist’s back is turned.
Carrier Emond’s discounting tasks worked on the same principle. In the first, a money discounting task, the men were asked whether they would prefer to receive a smaller amount of money now or a larger amount after a delay. In the second discounting task, the volunteers were asked to imagine preferred sexual acts. If offered the opportunity to engage in their preferred sexual act for a short time now, or a longer time later, what would they choose?
Both groups of men — the perpetrators of sexual coercion and the non-perpetrators — were less willing to delay gratification in the sexual task than in the money task. In general, men can wait for money longer than they can wait for sex. However, the non-perpetrators’s responses to the two types of task were fairly similar, while sexually coercive men’s preferences for immediate sexual rewards were much stronger than their preferences for immediate monetary rewards.
A further impulsivity survey revealed that reckless behavior in response to strong negative and positive emotions was stronger among perpetrators than non-perpetrators.
Carrier Emond and her colleagues conclude that there are different types of impulsivity. We shouldn’t expect men who are impulsive when it comes to money to be impulsive when it comes to sex, and sexually coercive men find it especially difficult to resist the temptation to behave impulsively when emotions are riding high.
Of course, this study was conducted in the laboratory and depended on self-reports. We can’t be sure the men were being truthful when they described their history of sexual coercion, or that their responses on the hypothetical discounting tasks would mirror their responses in the real world.
Nevertheless, the researchers contend that their results:
emphasize the importance of evaluating different facets of impulsivity, using self-report and behavioral measures, in order to fully understand its links with sexual assault.
Carrier Emond, F., Gagnon, J., Nolet, K., Cyr, G., & Rouleau, J.-L. (in press). What money can’t buy: different patterns in decision making about sex and money predict past sexual coercion perpetration. Archives of Sexual Behavior. doi:10.1177/0265407517744385
New research suggests that how we perceive the personality of our leaders is colored by our own politics.Michael Vadon/Flickr
As someone with a keen interest in psychology, you may have some experience of taking personality tests. Many of the most popular — and scientifically supported — of these tests are based on the five factor model of personality. The so-called “Big 5” personality traits are openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and emotional stability. A person can score high or low on any of these traits.
Psychologists don’t necessarily need you to sit a test to give you a score: it’s possible to build up a profile of someone’s personality from afar. And in recent years it’s become common for experts to pronounce on the personalities of famous individuals, including our political leaders. But how valid are these personality profiles?
Joshua Wright and Monica Tomlinson of the University of Western Ontario have tested this question in a paper published today in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.
Wright and Tomlinson started their investigation with a pair of recently released personality profiles of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. These profiles were prepared by personality experts, and label Trump as high in extroversion, average in openness to experience, and low in conscientiousness, agreeableness, and emotional stability. Clinton was judged to be high in conscientiousness and emotional stability, and average in openness to experience, agreeableness, and extroversion.
However, almost all of the experts who produced these profiles self-identified as politically liberal, calling into question their impartiality. This might be a problem, given that personality traits are socially desirable: it is seen as good to be open to new experiences, agreeable, or emotionally stable. Can experts set aside their personal political ideologies when profiling political leaders, or are they swayed by their beliefs?
In the days following the 2016 US presidential election, Wright and Tomlinson asked 360 Americans to judge the Big 5 personality traits of Trump and Clinton. The volunteers also rated their own political persuasions on a scale from “extremely liberal” to “extremely conservative”, and revealed how they had voted in the recent election.
The results of the study showed that the personal politics of the raters did color the profiles they provided of the two leading candidates in the 2016 election.
Compared to a control group of political moderates, Clinton voters rated Trump lower in conscientiousness and openness to experience. Conversely, Trump voters rated the then president-elect higher in agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability, and openness to experience.
When it came to ratings of Clinton, those who voted for the Democratic nominee thought she was higher in agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability, and openness to experience. Compared to moderates, Trump voters thought Clinton was lower in conscientiousness.
The ratings of the liberal experts were very closely aligned to those of the left-leaning voters.
Wright and Tomlinson conclude that expert and non-expert ratings of personality are biased by political preferences.
In their paper, the researchers:
caution against interpreting expert personality ratings of political candidates when the samples of experts are politically imbalanced, especially given that there is currently no evidence that experts are more accurate in their ratings of the personalities of political candidates, or that they are immune to political bias.
Wright, J. D., & Tomlinson, M. F. (2018). Personality profiles of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump: Fooled by your own politics. Personality and Individual Differences, 128, 21–24. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2018.02.019
Science reveals one way to never forget a face: judge everyone on their attractiveness.Some of these faces look familiar… Bethany Khan/Flickr
How good is your memory for the people you meet? Some claim to never forget a face. On the other extreme are those who suffer from complete face-blindness, and never recognize anyone from one meeting to the next.
Josefa Pandeirada, a psychologist from the University of Aveiro in Portugal, wondered whether our memory for faces might depend on how we encounter them. Along with her colleagues in Portugal and the USA she ran an experiment to find out.
In the first part of the experiment, 70 student-aged women saw a series of male faces on a computer screen. Each face appeared alongside a description. For example, “has a good sense of humor”, “likes to eat tuna”, or “usually causes conflicts”. As you can see, some of these descriptions were positive, some neutral, and others negative.
The volunteers’ task was to rate on a 6-point scale each man’s desirability. Half of the volunteers judged the men’s desirability for a long-term romantic relationship. The remaining volunteers judged the men for a long-term working relationship: should he be hired to join their company? Afterwards, all the volunteers completed an unrelated task for three minutes.
At this point, the volunteers thought the experiment was over. But no! They were given one last task: to look at some faces and decide whether each one was new or if they had seen it before. When they recognized someone, the volunteers tried to recall whether they had previously judged that person to be desirable, undesirable, or neutral.
Would their memory for the faces be affected by the type of judgment they had made? Would men judged for a romantic relationship be more easily recalled than men judged for a working relationship?
The quick answer is ‘yes’. Women in the ‘mating’ group were more accurate than those in the ‘working’ group at recognizing faces they had seen before. Women in the ‘mating’ group were also better able to recall whether they had previously classified a man as desirable, undesirable, or neutral: they were correct about 47% of the time. Women in the ‘working’ group, who had rated men for their desirability as a work colleague, correctly recalled their judgments only 35% of the time (we would expect women who guessed to have been correct 33% of the time).
Pandeirada and colleagues suspect that their results can be explained by evolutionary theory. That is, our memory skills likely evolved because they were useful to our ancestors in solving problems. But not all problems are equally important, and it’s likely that decisions about romantic partners are some of the most consequential that humans face.
Scientists working in other labs have also shown that our memory is better for indicators of contamination than cleanliness, and for living creatures than for inanimate objects. Both of these findings are consistent with Pandeirada’s evolutionary explanation because humans are motivated to avoid disease and predators.
Pandeirada, J. N. S., Fernandes, N. L., Vasconcelos, M., & Nairne, J. S. (2017). Adaptive memory: remembering potential mates. Evolutionary Psychology, 15(4). Read paper.
Scientists have investigated the impact on attractiveness of the endorsement of personal vs social values.
I once attended a public lecture at which a psychologist presented a summary of recent discoveries about human physical attraction. At the end of the lecture, an attendee asked a question that I imagine many others were contemplating too: don’t humans choose their romantic partners for other reasons than beauty alone?
I agree that it can often seem that the psychology of attraction is dominated by the study of physical attributes, including face shape, skin texture, breast size, and even ankle symmetry (seriously). This can be dispiriting because physical appearance is difficult to alter without expensive and painful cosmetic surgery or (perhaps even more terrifying) intense physical exercise. And, perhaps because we know it’s wrong to give a job to an applicant, or our vote to a political candidate, because they’re good-looking, many of us share a vague feeling that it’s unfair to judge even potential partners on their physical traits.
But today we’re looking past these skin-deep qualities at the beauty within: is our attractiveness affected by the values we hold?
Values are cognitive representations of our needs. These might include freedom, knowledge, and prestige. Values are different to attitudes, which describe how we feel about other people, objects, institutions, or activities. Values describe what we care for. Psychologists who study how our values impact our lives identify two main types of value: personal values and social values. Those with strong personal values hanker after success, pleasure, and prestige. Those with strong social values are motivated by a desire to belong to a community, to adhere to tradition, and to express affection and obedience. We can each hold personal and social values, but research indicates that most people identify more strongly with one type of value than the other.
Guilherme Lopes, along with his colleagues at Oakland University in Michigan, decided to test whether endorsing personal vs social values would affect a person’s sex appeal.
The psychologists brought over 300 male and female volunteers to their lab. The volunteers, who were attracted to members of the opposite sex, were shown a series of descriptions of an opposite sex person. Two of these persons were described as highly physically attractive; another two as low in physical attractiveness. Two were described as endorsing personal values; the other two were described as endorsing social values.
The description of a person with strong personal values went like this:
Stephanie likes to live for the moment and to satisfy all her desires. She enjoys challenges and unknown situations and is always looking for risky adventures. She needs to have sex frequently to feel sexually satisfied. She tries to be efficient in everything she does and likes to have the power to influence others and to control decisions. She would be delighted if a lot of people admired her. She wants to receive respect for her contributions when she gets older.
And the description of a person with strong social values went like this:
John wants to have a deep and enduring affectionate relationship with someone with whom he can share successes and failures. He likes to feel that he is not alone in the world, to form part of a social group, and to have good neighborly relationships. He respects the traditions of the society he lives in, as well as his parents, superiors, and elders. He tries to follow the social norms and to fulfill his daily duties and obligations.
The volunteers rated the described persons for their attractiveness as a long-term partner on a 7-point scale.
The results of the study showed that persons with high social values were rated more attractive than those with high personal values: around 5 on the scale rather than around 3. But the ratings depended on the sex of the person being rated, and whether they were described as physically attractive.
Of course, physically attractive people were rated more appealing, but physical attractiveness boosted ratings more if it was paired with social rather than personal values.
Endorsement of social values was equally appealing in a man and a woman: around 6 if they were physically attractive, and around 3.5 if they weren’t. No sex differences at all. But a man with high personal values was less attractive than a woman with those same high personal values. A physically attractive woman with high personal values scored over 4 on the scale; an attractive man with high personal values scored less than 3.
Of course, it’s impossible to say whether the volunteers’ preferences were swayed by all aspects of Stephanie and John’s values, or if one or two aspects of their persona were more persuasive. You may have noticed that the person high in social values was described as seeking an “enduring affectionate relationship”. It’s perhaps unsurprising that the person who says they want a long-term relationship would be more appealing as a long-term partner. Likewise, it’s hardly a shocker that a person who values “satisfying all her desires” and who “needs to have sex frequently to feel sexually satisfied” might be considered less of a long-term catch, who may consider these traits a harbinger of sexual infidelity.
And is it possible that that the descriptions of high personal and social values used in Lopes’ study conflate values with a propensity for instant or delayed gratification? The high value person was described as “[living] for the moment” and “looking for risky adventures”, but I can imagine that a person motivated by personal values of achievement, glory, and prestige might be inclined to work hard to achieve their goals, for example by studying at university or training to excel at sport. A person who wants their personal desires to be gratified immediately is quite likely to be less appealing as a marriage partner than someone who is more patient about fulfilling those same desires.
In their paper, the researchers suggest that:
future research may benefit from investigating the mediational role of perceived risk of infidelity on the effects of a person’s endorsement of personal and social values on that person’s desirability as a long-term partner,
and that it might be worthwhile to “investigate whether endorsement of certain values is associated with social stereotypes” because:
providing participants with information about a prospective partner’s values may trigger social stereotypes (e.g., “He likes to live for the moment and to satisfy all his desires” may trigger stereotypes of, e.g., bon vivant, which may bias some of the participants’ responses).
Lopes, G. S., Barbaro, N., Sela, Y., Jeffery, A. J., Pham, M. N., Shackelford, T. K., & Zeigler-Hill, V. (2017). Endorsement of social and personal values predicts the desirability of men and women as long-term-partners. Evolutionary Psychology, 15(4). Read paper
The stock answer is that bullying behavior is the symptom of a psychological problem. That bullies are low in self-esteem, or high in shame. That they are pathologically aggressive or confrontational. To some extent, these explanations may be true. But recently psychologists have begun to wonder if bullying might be a rational strategy some kids use to get ahead.
Of course, it should go without saying that bullying is deplorable. It is unlikely that any scientist thinks bullying can be justified, or that violence should be ignored. However, if we are to understand why some adolescents are motivated to bully their peers, we need to examine all the costs and benefits associated with bullying.
Daniel Provenzano of the University of Windsor in Ontario, along with his colleagues at Ontario’s Brock University, noticed that bullies tend to report a higher number of dating and sexual partners. Bullies could, of course, be prone to exaggeration. Nevertheless, the link between bullying and sex suggests that victimizing peers could be part of a sexual strategy.
But how, you might ask, can bullying lead to sex? One possibility is that when an adolescent bullies a rival, that rival is intimidated into withdrawing from competition for mates. Perhaps the victim of bullying chooses not to attend parties, or to join school clubs and sports teams. If he or she isn’t mixing with potential partners, this gives the bully an advantage on the social scene. Bullies may also advertise their dominance, a trait that others find alluring, or make their victims seem less attractive by denigrating their appearance or spreading rumors about their sexual behavior.
Provenzano and his colleagues asked hundreds of older and younger adolescents about their experience with bullying and sex. They also subjected their volunteers to personality tests.
You may have heard of the Big 5 personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. But some psychologists think there is a sixth dimension of personality: honesty-humility . This trait describes how people differ in their sincerity, fairness, greed, and modesty. Those who score low on honesty-humility are more likely to manipulate others, to cheat or steal to get ahead, and to feel they are somehow ‘better’ than their peers.
Provenzano found that adolescents low in honesty-humility reported more sexual partners, but that bullying also had a mediating effect on mating success. In other words, adolescents who scored low on honesty-humility were more likely to bully others, and bullies reported greater success in attracting sexual partners.
Extroverts, especially among the younger adolescents, reported more sexual partners — but there was no mediating effect of bullying. This implies that extroverts are able to secure dates without resorting to peer victimization. Younger adolescents low in agreeableness were also more likely to bully, as were older adolescents who were low in conscientiousness.
Provenzano’s results suggest that motivations for bullying change over the course of adolescence, but that teens low in honesty-humility are consistently more likely to bully, and to reap the benefits of bullying on their love lives.
These findings have the potential to inform how educators and campaigners tackle the problem of adolescent bullying. As the researchers point out:
Many [anti-bullying] interventions do not explicitly address possible sexual competition as a goal of bullying. Given that adolescence is characterized both by sexual maturation and the onset of sexual behavior, this is a potentially crucial oversight.
Provenzano, D. A., Dane, A. V., Farrell, A. H., Marini, Z. A., & Volk, A. A. (in press). Do bullies have more sex? The role of personality. Evolutionary Psychological Science. Read summary
New research suggests that our relationship quality is better if we empathize with our partner’s negative and positive feelings.Joanna Malinowska/freestocks
“For better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health.” The idea that we should provide support for our partners when times are bad as well as good is so important, that it’s included in standard marriage vows.
Research shows that partners who empathize with one another’s negative emotions experience greater satisfaction with their relationships. When we go through tough times, it’s reassuring to know that our closest companion is with us every step of the way. As the saying goes, “misery loves company”.
But what about when everything is going great? When we’re feeling happy and joyous? If our partners vicariously feel these positive emotions as well as the negative, how does this affect our relationships?
In a recent study, Michael Andreychik of Fairfield University in Connecticut, USA, decided to find out.
He invited 175 men and women to answer questions about their relationships. The volunteers reported how strongly they felt connected to the emotions of their partner. They also rated how satisfied they were with their relationships.
The results of the study showed that people who reported empathizing with their partner’s negative emotions were more satisfied with their relationships. The effect of empathizing was not negligible, but neither was it especially powerful. The effect of empathizing with the partner’s positive emotions, however, was five times stronger!
Why is this? Andreychik speculates that it could be because sharing positive emotions is less risky. If your partner is upset, or is going through a stressful time, providing support can be difficult. Sharing concern is reassuring to some partners, but it can make others feel smothered, resentful, or weak. Simply put, during happier times it is less likely that sharing a partner’s feelings risks making them feel worse.
So, although it is great to be there for your partner when they’re sad, anxious, or angry, it is perhaps even more important to share their positive emotions. By expressing excitement over your partner’s achievements, sharing their amusement at a funny story, and encouraging them when they meet their goals, you not only double your joy but also forge a more satisfying relationship.
Andreychik, M. R. (in press). I like that you feel my pain, but I love that you feel my joy: empathy for a partner’s negative versus positive emotions independently affect relationship quality. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. Read summary
Why are some people more jealous than others? New research suggests that many of us have distinctly Freudian motives.Joanna Malinkowska/Freestocks
Jealousy is a serious problem. Not only can it lead to suspicion, arguments, and break up, but violence perpetrated against women by their male partners is most often motivated by sexual jealousy. Scientists should be making every effort to understand more about jealousy , because we can only combat the negative consequences of jealousy if we know how and why it emerges.
Angela Neal of the University of South Carolina and Edward Lemay of the University of Maryland are striving to discover more about why we are suspicious of our partners, and recently published the results of their research in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.
They had around 100 male-female couples complete daily surveys for one week. Each survey included questions about respondents’ anger and negative behaviors directed toward their partner, about how attracted they felt to people other than their partner, and about how attracted they suspected their partner felt to other people.
Neal and Lemay found that volunteers suspected their partner’s attraction to others was low when it really was low, and high when it really was high. Their estimates weren’t 100% correct, but they were quite accurate.
However (and here’s where it gets interesting), volunteers’ own attraction to others was much more closely linked to their estimates of their partner’s attraction to others. Put another way, people who hankered after a fling suspected their partner wanted one too; people who thought of no one but their partner believed that their partner was similarly innocent.
A person’s suspicion of their partner was much more strongly predicted by their own attraction to others than by the partner’s actual attraction to others.
This process is akin to the psychological phenomenon of ‘projection’, first formulated by Sigmund Freud. It’s the idea that we deal with undesirable emotions and attitudes by assuming those emotions and attitudes are held by other people. We think others are guilty because we feel guilty ourselves; we think our parents are angry at us because we are angry at them.
So, why do those with a wandering eye project their desire for illicit sex onto their partner? The researchers speculate that it could be because, when we are asked to theorize about our partner’s desires, our own desires come more readily to mind. We feel similar to our partner in other ways, and it may simply be easier to assume their wishes are the same as ours. Another possibility is that we project because of what psychologists call “motivated cognition”: that is, we are inclined to reach certain conclusions because they make us feel better. This means that if we feel guilty about being attracted to someone else, a belief that our partner is also guilty may reduce our own feelings of guilt.
This is really important because, as Neal and Lemay found, people are angrier with their partner when they suspect their partner of harboring desire for sex with another person, and their suspicions are stronger when they themselves are fantasizing most about illicit sex.
So, when you next find yourself obsessing about your partner’s interest in other people, you might benefit from taking a look in the mirror and asking yourself if it’s your own fantasies that are to blame. Conversely, if you discover your partner really is a cheater, and can’t believe you didn’t spot the signs, console yourself that it was probably your innocence rather than your naivety that put a check on your jealousy.
Neal, A. M., & Lemay, E. P. (in press). The wandering eye perceives more threats: Projection of attraction to alternative partners predicts anger and negative behavior in romantic relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. Read summary
Discovering that your partner is a cheat can be devastating. As well as dealing with the revelation that a partner has been unfaithful, the victim of infidelity must answer a difficult question: “should I stay or should I go?”
How do we decide whether to end or continue a relationship with a cheater? Which factors would be integral to your decision if you were to find your partner had strayed?
Rosie Shrout and Daniel Weigel of the University of Nevada, Reno, have studied this question and recently published the results of their research in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.
For their first study, Shrout and Weigel recruited 200 student-aged men and women who were in committed relationships. The volunteers were asked to imagine that, after fighting with their partner, their partner went to a party where they had sex with someone else. Afterwards, the partner expressed a desire to move past the infidelity and remain in the relationship.
Next, half of the volunteers were asked to imagine that most of the people in their social network had advised them to stay in the relationship. The other half of the volunteers were told the opposite: that their friends and family had said they should leave their partner.
As well as indicating whether they would end or continue with the relationship in these circumstances, the volunteers completed a series of questionnaires. One of these measured their forgiveness of the partner. Another measured the extent to which they attributed the cause of the infidelity to the behavior of the partner: was he or she to blame?
The psychologists found that the decision to stay or leave was best described as a sequence of processes. The volunteers’ perceptions of their social network members’ approval influenced their attribution of blame, which in turn influenced the extent to which they forgave their partner, which led to their decision to stay or go. So, people whose friends and family thought they should leave their partner were more likely to blame the partner for the transgression, were less likely to forgive the partner, and less likely to stay with the partner after the infidelity. The process was reversed among volunteers whose social networks preferred sticking with the relationship.
These findings were supported by a second study, in which the volunteers were victims of genuine (rather than imagined) infidelity and reported on the real opinions of their friends and family.
Of course, this study can’t tell us exactly how we would respond to discovering that our partner is a cheater. Everyone’s circumstances are different. It’s also difficult to disentangle the effects of our social network’s opinions from our own: we are likely to be embedded in social relationships with people whose opinions match our own. And, as the researchers point out in their paper, the decision-making process is likely to be more nuanced among older people, who may have to consider finances, children, and living arrangements when pondering whether to stick with or ditch a cheater.
But what this research does reveal is that, when our lives are adversely affected by the actions of others, how we feel and behave in response to this adversity can be further influenced by the attitudes of others: our friends and family. If you are ever in the unfortunate position of discovering a partner’s infidelity, you may like to reflect on how the advice of others might sway you from responding how you think is best.
Shrout, M. R., & Weigel, D. J. (in press). “Should I stay or should I go?” Understanding the noninvolved partner’s decision-making process following infidelity. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. View summary