How System Threat Affects Cupid
Posted by Aaron Kay on February 13, 2008
Can a challenge to the stability of the federal government change individual romantic preferences? A study that I recently published with Grace Lau and Steven Spencer suggests that in reaction to such a challenge, system justification can cause males to prefer female partners with “benevolently stereotypical” characteristics, including vulnerability, purity, and suitability for making men complete. This study is the first to link system justification processes with interpersonal attraction.
System justification theorists have found that when an individual’s socio-political system is threatened, the person will restore his faith in the system by engaging in psychological processes that bolster the system’s legitimacy. One important way in which justification occurs is via the activation of stereotypes that justify social inequality.
The relevant stereotypes in our recent study are traits related to “benevolent sexism,” in which women are believed to be pure creatures who require protection, support, and love, and without whom a man would be incomplete. Exposure to such stereotypes leads to increased endorsement of the status quo.
In our experiment, single male Canadian undergraduates were presented with an article that either threatened or supported the current Canadian government. They were then asked to rate their interest in the online dating profiles of several women, half of which portrayed women with classic benevolent-stereotype characteristics, and half of which depicted women inconsistent with such stereotypes (for instance, career-oriented, athletic, or involved in social causes). Pretesting showed that all the women were seen as equally attractive, and photos of the women were also randomly paired with descriptions to avoid any confounding effect of physical attractiveness.
When participants were presented with the system-threatening article, they showed more interest in benevolent stereotypic women than in the other women. This divergence was not present when there was no system threat. The threat also increased the average ratings of attractiveness and interest for the benevolent stereotypic women, but not for the other women.
Our study suggests that men who experience system threat have greater romantic interest in women who embody benevolent sexist ideals than women who do not embody those ideals. In addition, men are more attracted to women who embody benevolent sexist ideals when they are experiencing system threat compared to when they are not. Acting on their preferences for benevolent stereotypic women may create a self-fulfilling prophecy encouraging women to embody these ideals and accept subordinate roles.
For a brief summary of this study in Sunday’s Boston Globe, click here. For a sampler of previous Situationist posts discussing system justification, see “Ideology is Back!,” “Ideology Shaping Situation or Vice Versa,” “Thanksgiving as ‘System Justification,’” “Lopez-Torres, Justice Scalia, and the Situation of Elections,” “Cheering for the Underdog,” “Patriots Lose: Justice Restored!,” “Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Situationism,” and “The Situation of ‘Winners’ and ‘Losers.’”