Confirmed: The male ego does bruise when his significant other succeeds

Men tend to feel worse about themselves when their wives or girlfriends succeed, with their self-esteem sagging rather than basking in the glory of their partners' accomplishments.

That's the conclusion of a study published online recently in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

A series of social experiments revealed that men's subconscious self-esteem bruises easily when their partner succeeds in a task, even if they're not competing against each other in that task, said study lead author Kate Ratliff.

"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 Ratliff, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Florida.

"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," she added in a news release from the American Psychological Association.

At the same time, a male partner's success had no effect at all on a woman's self-esteem, the researchers found.

"We sort of expected that women would internalize the success of their partner and actually feel better if their partner succeeded, but we found that nothing was going on," Ratliff said. "It could be that women are used to the idea that men are expected to be successful, so when they are it's no big deal."

The study involved 896 people in five experiments conducted in the United States and the Netherlands.

The first experiment included 32 couples at the University of Virginia who took a problem-solving test. Then they were told that their partner scored either in the top or bottom 12 percent of all university students. Participants did not receive information about their own performance.


The news of their partners' success or failure did not affect how participants said they consciously felt about themselves, which the study authors referred to as "explicit self-esteem."

But, tests gauging "implicit self-esteem" -- a person's unconscious and unspoken sense of self -- found that men who believed that their partner had scored in the top 12 percent had significantly lower self-esteem than men who believed their partner had scored in the bottom 12 percent.

"I want to be clear -- this really isn't the case that men are saying, 'I'm so upset my partner did well.' The men aren't acting different toward their partners. It's not like the men are being jerks," Ratliff said. "It's just hurting their sense of self to be in a relationship with someone who has experienced a success."

These findings were replicated in a pair of follow-up studies done in the Netherlands, a country that boasts one of the smallest gender gaps in labor, education and politics. Like American men, Dutch men outwardly said they felt fine, but subconsciously they felt worse about themselves when faced with a wife's or girlfriend's success.

The final two experiments were conducted online and involved 657 people from the United States.

Some were asked to think about different types of success -- for example, their partner's social success as a charming host or their partner's intellectual success at solving math problems. Others were asked to specifically consider a time when their partner succeeded or failed at something at which they themselves had succeeded or failed.

Regardless of whether the achievements were social or intellectual, men subconsciously still felt worse about themselves when their partner succeeded, rather than failed.


However, men's implicit self-esteem took a bigger hit when they thought about a time when their partner had succeeded at something while they had failed.

Ratliff speculated that these results could be tied to men's competitive urges, which previous studies have shown tend to burn much hotter than those of women.

The results also might reflect the gender roles that society reinforces on a daily basis. "We have these ideas that men should be smart and successful, and when it turns out that women are experiencing some kind of success, it violates men's idea of what it should be to be a man or a woman," she said.

Martin Ford, a professor of education at the George Mason University College of Education and Human Development, called the findings "fascinating and somewhat disconcerting."

"Many of us have known men who seem to want to turn everything into a competition, so it is not hard to imagine that this evolved motivational tendency might be rather widespread among males at some level, even if it is not so dramatic and often outside awareness," Ford said. "Yet it is unclear from this study if the inclination to frame social comparison information in terms of 'winners and losers' is unique to one's romantic partner. Would the same tendency apply to male buddies? Or work acquaintances? Or total strangers?

"But perhaps that is the point," he added. "If seeing things in competitive terms is such a powerful motivational orientation for some men that they can't get past that even with a romantic partner, how are they going to sustain relationships based on principles of equity and concern for others' welfare?"