Although men may feel like they enjoy basking in the glory of their successful wives or girlfriends, their subconscious self-esteem may be taking a direct hit when a spouse or girlfriend excels.

Interestingly, women’s self-esteem was unaffected by their male partners’ successes or failures, according to new research.

“It makes sense that a man might feel threatened if his girlfriend outperforms him in something they’re doing together, such as trying to lose weight,” said, Kate Ratliff, PhD, the study’s lead author. “But this research found evidence that men automatically interpret a partner’s success as their own failure, even when they’re not in direct competition.”

Yeah, I’m a Loser Baby

Subconsciously, the men felt worse about themselves when they reflected upon a time when their female partner thrived in a situation in which they had failed. Researchers studied 896 people in five experiments.

In one of the experiments, 32 heterosexual University of Virginia couples were given a “test of problem solving and social intelligence” and then were told that their partner scored either in the top or bottom 12 percent of all university students.

Hearing that their partner scored high or low on the test did not affect what the researchers called participants’ explicit self-esteem, in other words how they said they felt.

Implicit Self-esteem

Also, couples were given a test to determine how they subconsciously felt about their partners’ performance, which the researchers dubbed implicit self-esteem. In the latter test, a computer tracked how fast people associate good and bad words with themselves.

For example, participants with high implicit self-esteem who see the word “me” on a computer screen are more likely to associate it with words such as “excellent” or “good” rather than “bad” or “dreadful.”

Men who thought that their partner scored in the top 12 percent showed considerably lower implicit self-esteem than men who believed their partner scored in the bottom 12 percent. (Participants received no information concerning their own performance.)

Explicit Self-esteem

Two other experiments, conducted online, had 657 U.S. participants, 284 of whom were men. They were asked to think about a time when their partner had succeeded or failed. For instance some participants were asked to think about their partner’s social success or failure, like being a popular host at a party, or a more intellectual achievement or failure.

In one study, participants were asked to think of a time when their partner succeeded or failed at something at which they had succeeded or failed. Comparing all the results, researchers discovered that it did not matter if the achievements or failures were social, intellectual or related to participants’ own successes or failures.

Men subconsciously still felt worse about themselves when their partner succeeded than when she failed. But men’s implicit self-esteem was bruised more when they thought about a time when their partner succeeded at something while they had failed.

Gender Differences in Implicit Self-Esteem Following a Romantic Partner’s Success or Failure,” (pdf) Kate A. Ratliff, PhD, University of Florida, and Shigehiro Oishi, PhD, University of Virginia; Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0033769

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