A controversial new study authored by Pelin Gul from Iowa State University, and Tom Kupfer, from the University of Kent, sheds light on what attracts women, and why.
Published in the peer-reviewed Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, the study is titled “Benevolent Sexism and Mate Preferences: Why Do Women Prefer Benevolent Men Despite Recognizing That They Can Be Undermining?”
Citing previous research, Gul and Kupfer defined two kinds of sexism: hostile sexism, and benevolent sexism.
“Hostile sexism (HS) encompasses overtly prejudiced attitudes, whereas benevolent sexism (BS) involves subjectively positive attitudes (e.g., “women should be cherished and protected by men”), chivalrous behaviors, and attempts to achieve intimacy with women.”
Despite the “romantic” undertone, researchers noted, benevolent sexism still reinforces the notion that women are inferior. Previous research, Gul and Kupfer wrote, indicates that women’s endorsement of benevolent sexism is associated with negative consequences, including: acceptance of behavioral restrictions, dependency, lack of interest in independent thought, reduced cognitive and work performance, increased self-objectification.
Nevertheless, women report feeling attracted to men with BS attitudes. In an effort to understand why women prefer men with BS attitudes over those without, the researchers conducted five separate studies.
Two hundred and twenty three female students participated in study 1a. Each participant was randomly assigned to one of four experimental conditions. Every woman was asked to read a profile of a man described either as a work colleague, or as a potential romantic partner, holding non-BS, or BS attitudes. Study participants were then asked to rate, on a scale of one to 7, “willingness to provide,”attractiveness,” and similar.
“Despite perceiving the BS partner as more undermining and patronizing than the non-BS partner, women still found the BS partner more attractive,” Kupfer and Gul concluded, explaining the results of the first study.
Interestingly, preference for a potential mate with BS attitudes applied to feminist women as well.
In Study 1b, findings from study 1a were replicated and tested with minor adjustments. The findings were consistent with the findings from the first study.
Study 2a was designed to test whether the findings from the first two studies would still hold water, even if women were presented with profiles of men openly displaying BS attitudes. They did, although women’s preference for men with BS attitudes was greater in the romantic relationship condition, than in the professional relationship condition.
“Importantly, despite recognizing these potentially harmful effects, women (even high feminists) still found a potential romantic partner who displayed BS behaviors more attractive than one who did not,” Gul and Kupfer wrote.
The object of Study 2b was to replicate the findings from study 1b, but with some changes to ensure the findings were not obtained because the non-BS behaviors described in the previous study seemed negative in tone.
Instead of presenting the non-BS man as failing to do a behavior, the man was presented as acting more egalitarian (e.g., “Robert did not offer to show you how to use the program” versus “Robert left you to get on with the work on the program, while he got on with his half of the work”).
Again, the findings in the Study b2 were consistent with the findings in Study b1.
Although findings from studies 1a, 1b, 2a, and 2b were consistent with Gul and Kupfer’s hypothesis, the third and final study was done to test whether the “protection racket” (a claim that women embrace BC attitudes for benefits such as protection) hypothesis could explain the findings.
“Findings from Study 3 supported the benevolence as a mate-preference hypothesis by ruling out the protection racket hypothesis as an alternative explanation for our findings,” the researchers concluded.
Overall, despite knowing that BS men can be undermining, women still prefer them over non-BS men, Gul and Kupfer wrote, adding that the connection exists because the desirable effects of benevolent sexism, for women, outweigh the potential downsides. The finding that high feminist women also find BS men more attractive than non-BS men, the researchers concluded, suggests that this attraction is a mate preference for women in general, regardless of their attitude toward traditional gender roles.
“Benevolent sexism (BS) has detrimental effects on women, yet women prefer men with BS attitudes over those without. The predominant explanation for this paradox is that women respond to the superficially positive appearance of BS without being aware of its subtly harmful effects. We propose an alternative explanation drawn from evolutionary and sociocultural theories on mate preferences: women find BS men attractive.”
Authors pointed out that previous research has suggested that men display BS behavior in an effort to maintain male superiority in the social hierarchy, but their findings suggest that men may, in fact, be motivated by mating concerns.
A manuscript of the study is available for download on Researchgate.