Through four experiments, psychologists Laurie A. Rudman, PhD, of Rutgers, and Stephanie A. Goodwin, PhD, of Purdue University, used the Implicit Association Test to discover 204 heterosexual college students' automatic gender preferences and gender identity by asking them to associate positive and negative gender-free words with either "men" or "women." They also tested participants' self-esteem by asking them to associate those words with "I" or "others."
Both male and female participants associated the positive words--such as good, happy and sunshine--more often with women than with men, Rudman says.
Moreover, men and women tended to show high implicit self-esteem and high gender identity; however, men showed low pro-male gender attitudes, according to the study.
"A clear pattern shown in all four studies is that men do not like themselves automatically as much as women like themselves," Rudman says. "This contradicts a lot of theoretical thinking about implicit attitudes regarding status differences."
More specifically, men are historically and cross-culturally viewed as the dominant sex, so it might logically follow that they'd have a greater in-group bias, Rudman says.
To explore why their study found the opposite pattern, Rudman and Goodwin evaluated several possible reasons. They found:
Women's high self-esteem and female identity, on average, bolstered their automatic liking for women, whereas men's liking for men did not rely on high self-esteem or masculine identity. In other words, women can be characterized as thinking "if I am good and I am female, females are good," whereas men can be characterized as thinking "even if I am good and I am male, men are not necessarily good."
Men and women who implicitly favored their mothers over their fathers--such as by associating more positive words with their mothers than their fathers--also showed a pro-female bias, which suggests the influence of maternal bonding on gender preferences. In addition, people who reported being raised primarily by their mothers also showed pro-female bias on the IAT. Researchers, using self-reports, found no evidence that maternal attitudes influenced gender attitudes. In concert, these results are consistent with the theory that developmental events can influence implicit attitudes more than explicit attitudes, Rudman says.
Men and women who automatically perceived men as more threatening or intimidating than women also had pro-female preferences, suggesting that negative male stereotypes can promote greater liking for women.
Implicitly, men who reported liking sex also preferred women, but only if they were high on sexual experience. Men low on sexual experience showed implicit sexism to the extent they liked sex.
"These results suggest that for men, pro-female bias is moderated by sexual gratification," Rudman says. "By contrast, women who implicitly liked sex also preferred men, whether or not they were high on sexual experience."
Another possibility the researchers didn't test: Heterosexual men may be concerned about being labeled a homosexual if they show a bias toward their own gender, Rudman says. Women may be less concerned about this stigma, she adds.
Rudman aims to continue to use self-reports and implicit methods--such as the IAT--in future studies to further support the hypothesis that explicit and implicit attitudes can both be legitimate and genuine but can differ substantially when they stem from different sources.
"If we treat each [gender] attitude as likely to be bonafide but influenced by different causes, we can begin to map the complexity of the human cognition," Rudman says.