Men: Feeling a Lack of Power Can Drive Aggression Toward Women Interview with:
Emily J. Cross, MS
School of Psychology, Science Centre
The University of Auckland
Auckland What is the background for this study?

Response: Aggression and violence in intimate relationships is very harmful, and unfortunately Aggression and violence in intimate relationships is very harmful, and unfortunately very common. So identifying what predicts relationship aggression and why is important. Men’s hostile sexism toward women is an established risk factor for relationship aggression, but we actually know little about why these attitudes promote relationship aggression. Understanding why helps to identify how these damaging processes may be reduced. What are the main findings?

Response: Men who hold hostile sexist beliefs view gender relations between men and women as a contest for power and are concerned with women taking “men’s power”. We examined how these fears of losing power promote aggression in heterosexual relationships. Our findings show that men’s hostile sexism prompts greater aggression towards female partners because men who hold these beliefs perceive themselves to lack power in their relationships. These perceptions of low power are also biased. Men who hold hostile sexist attitudes perceive they have less power than they actually do according to their partners.

These findings contrast with the existing work which tends to attribute the aggression associated with hostile sexism to be men wanting more and more power and dominance over women.  A key aspect of our research was to contrast these perspectives. The results indicate that aggression in intimate relationships is most strongly associated with biased perceptions of low power rather than motives to be dominant. What should readers take away from your report?

I want readers to take away three main points from this work.

  1. Sexist attitudes affect what we think is going on within our close relationships, and how we behave towards our intimate partners. We know sexist attitudes influence how we view politicians, workmates, feminists and career women, but we need to think more carefully about how our beliefs about men and women bias how we view and experience our intimate relationships and treat our partners.
  2. Men who hold hostile sexist beliefs are aggressive towards their partners because they incorrectly feel they lack power in their relationship. Our power is inevitably restricted in intimate relationships because we are so dependent on our partners, which is confronting for people who fear losing power. Fears about women taking away power from men result in men underestimating how much power they actually have.
  3. Feeling a lack of power was a more powerful driver of aggression than wanting to be dominant or having more and more power over women. So men who hold sexist attitudes appear to be enacting aggression in an attempt to restore a lack of power. Addressing these biased perceptions, and helping men and women share power in relationships, is important in helping to reduce aggression in relationships. What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this work?

Response: In terms of future work, I aim to investigate whether the same power-related concerns and aggressive responses to restore power also occur outside of intimate relationships. For example, in workplace contexts when men need to share powerful positions with women, hostile sexist men will likely feel that their personal power is more threatened and constrained than it actually is. And, as we have found in intimate relationships, these biased perceptions of low power will likely trigger aggressive responses to restore power. The aggressive behaviors associated with men’s hostile sexism are likely to be even more overt in workplace versus intimate contexts as men are less motivated to care for and support co-workers compared to intimate partners. So testing whether lower perceived power informs why more sexist men sexism are more aggressive towards women across different domains is an important next step. 

No disclosures

Emily J. Cross, Nickola C. Overall, Rachel S. T. Low, James K. McNulty. An interdependence account of sexism and power: Men’s hostile sexism, biased perceptions of low power, and relationship aggression.. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2018; DOI: 10.1037/pspi0000167


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