Warmth and Competence: Ambivalent Sexism keeps Women out of Politics

On July 28, 2016, Hillary Clinton became the first woman to become the presidential nominee for a major political party in the US. People talked of her breaking the glass ceiling, ushering in a new era where women will be seriously considered alongside men for the highest office in the nation. But why has it taken so long for a woman to be a serious candidate for president? Women earned the right to vote once the 19th amendment was ratified on August 18, 1920, almost a century ago. And even though we make up half of the population, we only make up about 20% of congresspeople. Why is it that women don’t have proportional representation in our federal government?

It may be due to the fact that people often think of others in terms of their competence and warmth. Ideally, people rate high on both, but most people are seen as warm at the expense of being seen as competent, or vice versa. Unfortunately, warmth is a quality we expect from women, so while men often just need to rate high in competence, highly competent women are seen with envy, resulting in ambivalent sexism, a type of sexism that isn’t necessarily hostile (e.g. women are all gold diggers) or benevolent (e.g. women need to be protected by men). Women who are seen as competent but not warm are often non-traditional women, as opposed to filling housewife or sex object roles, they occupy career paths, or compete as athletes, filling spaces traditionally reserved for men. Traditional women tend to be seen as warm and likable, but they don’t garner respect.

So women are forced to walk a pretty fine line, they need to be seen as competent, but not so competent that they wouldn’t make you a sandwich. This may underlie the difficulty women have getting elected to office. If they reach the point where they are seen as competent enough for the job, they are often seen as unlikeable. If they compensate by upping the warmth factor, they may be compromising their competence. It’s a lose-lose situation for many women. Just ask Hillary Clinton, who has had a difficult time drumming up enthusiasm for her candidacy. People regularly say she’s qualified for the job and she is often seen as highly competent. But warmth? People just don’t want to have a beer with her. And while many of our male leaders have been seen as charismatic, it’s worth wondering how many of them have had to make a concerted effort to appear likable, as well as good at their jobs. For men, the latter is often the only real requirement.


Fiske, S. T., Cuddy, A. J., Glick, P., & Xu, J. (2002). A model of (often mixed) stereotype content: competence and warmth respectively follow from perceived status and competition. Journal of personality and social psychology82(6), 878.

Women and sexual harrassment: They just let you do it

Trigger warning: Includes personal story about sexual harassment, includes foul language

It’s safe to say election 2016 is in full dumpster fire mode. Donald Trump’s comments on the leaked tape released last week were shocking coming from a presidential candidate, yet they weren’t that shocking to a lot of women. Michelle Obama gave a speech today explaining why. Describing every woman’s experience, Obama talks about how women are used to men treating us as lesser beings, because we see it everywhere from the classrooms where we’re educated, to the strangers catcalling us on the street.

Her speech reminded me of an experience I had working for a man with a serious Napoleon complex when I was 19. The man might as well have been a small statured Donald Trump. I was a hostess at a popular restaurant, and I was required to wear heels while I stood for 8 hour shifts. The one time I dared to wear a cardigan, I was told to take it off and never wear it again because I didn’t look “as fuckable as usual.” My boss would watch me on a camera and call me every time he didn’t approve of my behavior. Why hadn’t I fluffed the pillows if no one was there? Why was there a napkin on the floor in the bar? Why did I leave the host stand to get a napkin off the floor in the bar? I was always being watched, and it made my skin crawl. Before I walked out of that job after a bout of verbal abuse, he said that he thought I’d make a good waitress, and if I wanted to come back next summer, he’d love to have me. I smiled and thanked him for the compliment, but, inside, I felt gross. The man had yelled at me and belittled me all day for a job that mostly entails leading people to chairs and talking like a human person, and not only did he think I’d want to keep working for him, he thought that he was being nice to me. And you know what? I never told that man how I felt about how he treated me. He was my boss, I was 19 and he was in his 40s, I was a hostess and he owned the restaurant. I sucked it up. I said nothing. And I feel ashamed about that, because that man continued to treat people that way, thinking no one had a real problem with it. When you’re the boss, they let you do it.

Why don’t people tell others how they really feel about things that they said or did when it happens? Social psychologists explain this with the person by situation interaction.1 It basically means that people bring themselves into situations, but then they sometimes behave unlike themselves due to those situations. While I would call out a friend for sexist and abusive behavior or language, I wouldn’t do it in the workplace, to a man with all the power when I had none, or even to a coworker I had to see regularly. The truth is, a lot of people’s behavior really is driven by situations that they are in. Do we become totally different people? Absolutely not. But do we sometimes do things and then wonder why we did them? Ask the 5 cookies I just ate. Yes. We do. So while people may behave out of character occasionally, maybe your usually loyal partner starts a flirtation with someone else, or a good friend says something not-so-nice behind your back when other people are talking about you, a pattern of such behavior is telling.

People often make the fundamental attribution error about other people’s behavior, which means that they assume that the behavior is indicative of the person’s dispositional characteristics, who they really are inside. Luckily, there is a way to determine if someone’s behavior is a demonstration of their true personality, or if it was influenced by situational factors. According to Kelley’s Attribution Theory, or Kelley’s Cube2, you can ask yourself 3 questions:

  1. Is there consensus about the behavior? If everyone is behaving that way, it’s probably influenced by the situation. For instance, if a lot of your coworkers are irritable the morning someone breaks the coffee machine, it probably isn’t the case your coworkers are just jerks all the time.
  1. Is there consistency in the person’s behavior? If someone acts in a certain way a good amount of the time, their behavior is likely due to their personality, their dispositional characteristics. For instance, if a friend constantly leaves their wallet at home every time you go to dinner with them, they’re probably a forgetful person by nature, or, more pessimistically, a manipulative one.
  1. Is the behavior distinctive, does it vary depending on what’s happening? If it does vary, then you can attribute it to the situation. For instance, if a person with normally good self-control eats a whole carton of ice cream, it may be due to some sort of emotional crisis rather than having a hearty appetite.

What worries me, and many women, is that Donald Trump’s behavior makes it clear that he really feels exactly like Michelle Obama said. This is who Trump really is, and it’s gross. He is every boss that ever stared at your ass on a closed circuit camera, he is every man on the street that thinks his evaluation of your physical characteristics is so important for you to hear you should take your earbuds out, he is every guy who buys you a drink at the bar when you said no and then gets mad that you won’t talk to him because he bought you a drink. Women see you Donald Trump. We don’t let you do it. We just feel like we can’t say no. And to answer the question you keep asking, we actually have a hell of a lot to lose.

  1. Mischel, W. (1977). The interaction of person and situation. Personality at the crossroads: Current issues in interactional psychology333, 352.
  1. Kelley, H. H. (1967). Attribution theory in social psychology. In Nebraska symposium on motivation. University of Nebraska Press.


Trump supporters have an attitude problem: The psychology of attitude change

In light of the latest scandal to plague Donald Trump (if you haven’t seen the video, it’s here), non-Trump supporters right now are wondering how people can actually continue to support this man. Prominent Republicans, including RNC chairman Reince Priebus, have publicly denounced Trump’s recent comments about “grabbing a woman’s pussy.” To them, I ask, what took so long? To his existing supporters, I ask, how can you continue to support him?

But I know how they can.


Attitude change is a tricky thing. Attitudes are comprised of an ABC of sorts: varying amounts of affective (based on emotions and values), behavioral (based on people’s observations of their behavior toward something), and cognitive (based on thoughts or beliefs) components. And trying to change a person’s attitude requires knowing which components make up that attitude. Attitude change is more likely when persuasive messages match the attitude type [1]. In other words, attempting to change a person’s cognitive-based attitude is more likely to be successful when the message appeals to a person’s rational thought and logic. Similarly, using an emotional appeal to a person with an affective-based attitude is likely to be more persuasive. The catch here is that emotions are, well, emotional and inherently non-objective. So, in the case of fear-based attitudes, which characterizes most of Trump’s supporters, trying to change their minds by too much fear is also ineffective. Fear-based change messages that are too strong backfire and lead the target person (or persons, in this case) to become overwhelmed, tune out, and lose the ability to think rationally about the topic at hand [2] [3].

20151210_edcartoon_640px_1449787495799_28217634_ver1-0_640_480-trumpWhich is why well-intentioned Clinton supporters or progressives who use cognitive-based attitudes fail to persuade Trump supporters. It’s why progressives who resort to fear, as in “Trump will start a nuclear war!” (could he? It’s possible), come up against a brick wall with Trump supporters. For many of them, their support of Trump is not cognitively-based, so that appeal won’t work. It’s why telling them Donald Trump is flat out lying to them A LOT doesn’t mean a thing. And fear-based appeals come on too strong and too intense–likely because Trump opponents are legitimately terrified of a Trump presidency given his incompetence and xenophobia, racism, misogyny, etc.–so those certainly don’t work, either.

Something else is likely going on here: the inoculation effect. Attitude inoculation acts in essentially the same way as vaccines and other inoculations: “attitude inoculation is making people immune to attempts to change their attitudes by initially exposing them to small doses of the arguments against their position”[4]. Does that sound familiar? Trump supporters have been exposed to “attacks” on him and questions about his character, his integrity, his competence since he first announced his candidacy and in the process offended millions of Latinos throughout the country. And each successive “attack” on Trump (note how I’m using quotations because these attacks are, nearly without exception, justified and truthful revelations) is actually strengthening “Support Trump” attitudes.

This, of course, is not true without exception. Certainly there have been Trump supporters who no longer supported him after successive gaffes, especially after this latest one. By and large, however, Trump has maintained a steady percentage of Americans who stand by him (about 32%), seemingly no matter what; this support has been even higher among certain demographics. How else can that be explained than by decades of research on attitude change?

party-crasher-trumpOf course, the presidency is much higher stakes than a typical attitude change situation.
Additional factors are at play, like the crumbling and divided GOP, who can’t decide what to do with Trump. This latest might finally be the blow that pressures Trump to withdraw (although he claims there is “zero chance I’ll quit”). If he does, however, he’ll do so to the dismay and sadness of his ever-present fearful supporters.



[1] Shavitt. (1990). The role of attitude objects in attitude function. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 26, 124-148.

[2] Janis & Feshbach. (1953). Effects of fear-arousing communications. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 49, 78-92.

[3] Liberman & Chaiken. (1992). Defensive processing of personally relevant health messages. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 18, 669-679.

[4] Aronson, Wilson, & Akert. (2013). Attitudes and attitude change. In Social Psychology (164-195) (8th ed.).

Who do you think you are? What your social media posts say about you


Are you someone who posts political opinions and articles on Facebook? Some of you are emphatically scoffing right now—Facebook is not the place for it! Not going to change anyone’s minds! Others of you are boldly declaring, of course you do! I am often in the latter group, sometimes sheepishly so, but not always.

Why do we post such articles on Facebook? Maybe we truly believe that we can reach even one person who didn’t understand why “All Lives Matter” is offensive or who hadn’t considered that Hillary is relatively honest, as politicians go. Certainly, this could be the case. But, as with anything we do, the explanation is probably more complicated than that. It’s also likely that people post political articles and share opinions on hot button topics to portray a certain image of themselves. An image that says, I am not ignorant. I am a liberal/conservative/independent/Christian/atheist/fill-in-the-blank. I care about these issues because I am a compassionate good person.

facebook-gif-2The articles we post are a proxy of who we are, a strategic presentation of self, a way to shape others’ thoughts and assumptions about us.1 How many times have you or someone you know unfriended someone because of something they shared or said on Facebook? These intended perceptions are not necessarily false or distorted. In the examples above, the person posting may legitimately be a liberal compassionate good person. Wanting others to see that and taking care so that they do is not false. Furthermore, strategic self-presentation on Facebook or any social media, for that matter, is not constrained to the political domain, although the election makes this post oh so timely.

What are people trying to convey when they share on social media? Jones and Pittman (1982) offer several strategies people use to manage others’ impressions of them:

  1. Ingratiation: the most common form of self-presentation. We want others to like us, but we can’t be too obvious about it. An ingratiating post has an ulterior motive of wanting those who read it to like you because you posted it, but the post isn’t going to indicate that explicitly. This strategy usually has an intended target audience in mind. Maybe you posted an article about Hillary Clinton because you want your new friends who are Hillary supporters to see it.
  1. Intimidation: this type of self-presentation is the opposite of #1. The person posting is uninterested in being liked. They want to convey power and potential to be dangerous (think Men’s Rights Activists who harass women on the internet). This type of post is most problematic for people who are stuck with the person who posted it, like a family member. Others can simply (usually) ignore the jerk.
  1. Self-promotion: We all know this type of post. It’s self-focused, whether explicitly or not. The goal is usually to elicit feelings of competence or attractiveness. An additional component is that the information in such a post can’t contradict anything else known about the person, or else perceived competence is diminished.
  1. Exemplification: Similar to self-promotion, exemplification posts aim for the audience to perceive the poster as moral and of high integrity. Note that this is not mutually exclusive from #3. Who doesn’t want to be seen as moral and likable? Of course, this post backfires if not seen as sincere or authentic.

Again, these strategies don’t necessarily exist independently of each other (see #3 and #4). And exceptions exist, as is the case with extreme emotion, like anger or joy, which can propel people to share updates or articles on Facebook without an underlying self-presentation strategy. Much of the time, however, posts can be categorized into one of the above 4 strategies.


Happy Facebooking!


1  Jones & Pittman. (1982). Toward a general theory of strategic self-presentation. Psychological perspectives on the self, 231-262.

White Privilege at the voting booth: How pervasive is white privilege?


Image from Quote Addicts

In 1988, Peggy McIntosh wrote a famous piece called, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.”1 In the essay, she discusses how belonging to advantaged groups, like white people or men, contributes to the ways that we navigate and perceive our worlds. She makes a stirring point about how easy it is to recognize racism, but that we often have a difficult time seeing how we may be advantaged due to the existence of that racism. You don’t not need to be engaging in racist behavior, using racial epithets or endorsing the bigotries of others in order to be advantaged by societal attitudes. The sad thing, McIntosh points out, is that people who are oppressive in their societal roles are often unaware that they are occupying roles at all.

For instance, people don’t readily recognize that they are more likely to hire white people over people of color, but research shows that this is indeed the case.2 When researchers sent out identical resumes, but with black or white sounding names, people with white sounding names received 50% more interview requests.2 White people are often convinced that anti-white sentiment is actually becoming a bigger problem than anti-black bias, and that attempts to decrease racism are a “zero-sum game” that increases bias towards whites.3 And that’s pretty damn troubling, y’all. As Jen pointed out last week, implicit bias against black people, and black men in particular, results in a larger number of escalated police encounters. While white people are becoming increasingly concerned about being blamed for the problems of minorities, black people are literally worried about being killed in the middle of the day during a routine traffic stop.

As per usual, arguments that equate racism and “reverse racism”* present a false equivalence: there is no systematic disadvantage to being white. White people are armed with our invisible knapsack of privilege. We dominate accounts of history, we see images that look like ourselves everywhere and we can be assured that when things don’t go our way, it is likely not because we’re white. Peggy McIntosh so eloquently hits on the subtlety of privilege in her essay, so I will borrow some of her words. “I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed,” “When I am told about our national heritage or about ‘civilization,’ I am shown that people of my color made it what it is,” “I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group,” “I can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and children’s magazines featuring people of my race,” and  “I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.”

What McIntosh is tapping into here is how unrecognizable the receipt of privilege is. We are not aware that it is happening unless we attempt to be aware of it. We enjoy these invisible privileges, and resent others for suggesting that we have such privileges at all. Even within the context of our presidential election, we have one candidate who is recognizing the disadvantages that black citizens are experiencing on all levels of the legal system, and we have another suggesting that a racist, unconstitutional policy should be widely implemented in order to restore “law and order” to our cities.

For some, the solution is this simple. Black neighborhoods are more violent, therefore black people are more violent, therefore we need to police them with more vigor. For others, there is recognition that the problems in black neighborhoods have much to do with the lack of white privilege. Lack of access to quality education, lack of exposure to suitable role models, lack of mentorship from non-family members, lack of networking contacts in hiring positions, lack of parental free-time to help with home education…You could go on for days. The fact is that there is a flip side to implicit bias, and it’s this kind of implicit inflation. There’s a famous saying, “He was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.” Sometimes, we simply can’t take credit for everything that we have. We didn’t pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. Sometimes, we received some of those things simply because we are white, or we at least had easier access to them because we have racial privilege. And make no mistake, there are plenty of kinds of privilege. Class, male, and heterosexual privilege all exist as well. People who are advantaged in one domain are not necessarily advantaged in all domains.

In election years in particular, it’s important to recognize where our thinking may suggest that we have a narrow perspective on the issue. Barack and Michelle Obama have recently talked about how third-party votes in this election are votes for Donald Trump. People who disagree have taken to online forums declaring that they are simply voting their conscience, and not violating their own sense of integrity. Well, the next president will choose at least 2 Supreme Court justices, will have access to the nuclear codes and has the ability to set women’s, minority and LGBT rights back by several years. But at least you can tuck your integrity into your invisible knapsack.

*In quotes, because it doesn’t exist. Anti-white bias, prejudice or discrimination, sure, but not racism, due to a lack of systematic disadvantage due to being white.

  1. McIntosh, P. (1988). White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack. Race, class, and gender in the United States: An integrated study4, 165-169.
  2. Bertrand, M., & Mullainathan, S. (2004). Are Emily and Greg more employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A field experiment on labor market discrimination. The American Economic Review94(4), 991-1013.
  3. Norton, M. I., & Sommers, S. R. (2011). Whites see racism as a zero-sum game that they are now losing. Perspectives on Psychological Science6(3), 215-218.


Psych in Sum: Confirmation Bias in Politics


Image from Clay Bennett

We saw the first debate between the two major party nominees for president this Monday, and critiques of the candidates’ performances flooded the internet. As with every debate, there are people declaring victory on both sides. Not only did their candidate win, but he/she mopped the floor with the other one! But political experts largely agree that Hillary Clinton won the debate, and polls of likely voters that were conducted offline show the majority of the electorate thinks Clinton won as well. So how do a bunch of people take some unscientific online polls and use them as real evidence that Trump won? Confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is a tendency to seek out information that supports your position (hello .net web address!) and to interpret information in such a way that it confirms what you already think.1 Everyone is vulnerable to this bias. In fact, scientists regularly try to avoid having their a priori beliefs affect the later interpretation of their data through various techniques, like deciding sample size before looking at the results, or using a blind experimental design. They go through this trouble because we know that people tend to selectively expose themselves to information they agree with, and tend to ignore information they don’t agree with.1 That isn’t good science, and it isn’t the road to good decision-making either.

Thinking your biases are founded in fact can be extremely problematic and lead to overconfidence in judgments, such that you are more certain your judgment is correct than your evidence warrants.And if there’s something worse than someone who is wrong, it’s someone who is desperately trying to convince you they aren’t. Generally, if you look hard enough, you’re going to find something that assures you that you are right. Whether or not that something has any real merit is often another story.


  1. Nickerson, R. S. (1998). Confirmation bias: A ubiquitous phenomenon in many guises. Review of general psychology2(2), 175.
  2. Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1977). Intuitive prediction: Biases and corrective procedures. DECISIONS AND DESIGNS INC MCLEAN VA.

Psych in Sum : Debates and body language 101



Tonight’s debate is expected to have 100 million viewers—more than any other presidential debate in history. While you’re watching, don’t just listen to what’s said. Watch the body language and delivery style of each candidate and keep the following in mind:

Carli, LaFleur, and Loeber (1995) examined four delivery styles of male or female speakers to determine how persuasive and well-received these styles were by male and female participants.

 Dominant: loud voice, angry tone, points intrusively at other person, maintains almost constant eye contact with other person, stern facial expression

Submissive: soft, pleading voice with verbal hesitations and stumbles, slumped posture, nervous hand gestures¸ averted gaze

Social: voice of moderate volume, relaxed posture with body leaning toward listener, friendly facial expression, moderately high amount of eye contact

Task: rapid speech, upright posture, moderately high eye contact while speaking, few vocal hesitations or stumbles, calm hand gestures

Participants rated these speakers on their competence, level of power (How powerful? Influential? Persuasive?), likeability (how likeable? Friendly? Group-oriented? Trustworthy?), and the extent to which they seemed threatening (How threatening? Condescending? Intimidating?).

Key findings:

  • Dominant style was perceived to be more powerful and influential but NOT more competent and certainly not more likeable. In fact, speakers exhibiting a dominant style, regardless of their gender, were equally disliked by male and female audiences.
  • Male and female speakers using social style were perceived to be the most competent, sociable, friendly and likable.
  • Relatedly, competence was deemed to be equally important for male and female speakers of both audiences. However, likeability was more important for male audiences of female speakers. In other words, female speakers for male audiences must be competent and likeable, whereas male speakers for male audiences only need to be competent. Female audiences showed no difference for male and female speakers.


Does this change how you watch the debate tonight?

Carli, LaFleur, & Loeber. (1995). Nonverbal, behavior, gender, and influence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 68, 1030-1041.