Hostile, sexist men feel less powerful in relationships

Embargoed until: Publicly released:
Rather than coming from a place of arrogance, straight men who have hostile attitudes towards women are more inclined to think they lack power, University of Auckland researchers say. In a study of relationship power dynamics involving more than 1000 people from the USA and New Zealand, men with these hostile attitudes were worried about losing power to women and felt they lacked power in their relationship - feelings which were linked to greater aggression.

Journal/conference: Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Interpersonal Relations and Group Processes

DOI: 10.1037/pspi0000167

Organisation/s: University of Auckland, Florida State University, USA

Media Release

From: University of Auckland

Men with hostile sexist beliefs feel less powerful in relationships

Heterosexual men with hostile sexist attitudes are more likely to think they lack power in a relationship rather than seeing themselves as powerful, according to new research from the University of Auckland.

The study, involving over a thousand people from America and New Zealand, 590 of whom were in couples ranging from newly-weds to parents, used three different methods to gather data including couple video-recorded conflict discussions, surveys, and daily records.

Men and women respondents in the study were asked about their daily interactions on issues such as perceived power within the relationship, how much they could influence their partner and vice versa, aggression in the relationship and overall relationship satisfaction.

Authors Emily Cross, a doctoral candidate, and Associate Professor Nickola Overall, both from the School of Psychology, say men who hold hostile attitudes about women believe women want to take power from men and are concerned about losing power to women.

Their research shows these beliefs impact how people view power dynamics in their intimate relationships; men who held these beliefs felt they lacked power.

But their female partners didn’t see it that way, revealing that men who held sexist beliefs were biased and underestimated how much power they had. These biased feelings of low power were also associated with greater aggression.

The study takes a different approach from previous research where hostile sexism has been associated with attempts to dominate or intimidate a partner.

“We think this study clearly shows one key reason men who are concerned about losing power to women are aggressive is because they are trying to restore a perceived power imbalance rather than trying to get more power or dominance over their partner,” Ms Cross says.

Another finding of the study was that the discrepancy in perceived powerlessness was only apparent in men who held hostile sexist beliefs. When men were not concerned or threatened by women having power, both partners tended to agree on how much power each had.

Associate Professor Overall says the aggression that these attitudes promote can be highly damaging in intimate relationships. The costs include female partners withdrawing and becoming dissatisfied. This might result in reinforcing a male partner’s belief that women are inherently untrustworthy.

“It then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, so how sexist attitudes influence relationships becomes something of a vicious cycle,” she says.

Professor Overall says the research findings also have implications for hostile sexist behaviour outside intimate relationships.

“We’re interested in looking at how hostile sexism and biased feelings of power carry over into non-domestic, external relationships, such as within the workplace.”

Ms Cross says exploring why men express hostile sexist beliefs within intimate relationships is important in reducing sexism overall.

“Intimate relationships are where we are at our most vulnerable and where we are actually motivated to help and nurture a partner. So if we can shed light on the power struggles that happen within relationships, perhaps we can change attitudes and beliefs more generally.”

The study is published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology


  • American Psychological Association
    Web page
    The paper is open access and available at this URL

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