“Social interactions are a reflection of ideas and behavior that are acceptable or unacceptable in a society.” Thus opens a new study out of the National Research University of Russia, a country where sexism and other social injustices are not unusual. While women’s rights movements have led to some erosion of sexism, its prevalence in societies around the world is an ongoing concern.
This is despite the fact that most individuals find the thought of interacting with an overtly sexist individual displeasing. Indeed, studies have shown that “in everyday life, many people continue interacting with someone who is known to be sexist and even individuals who share egalitarian attitudes can demonstrate or be tolerant of sexual prejudice.” But if most people find the idea of sexism so unsettling, why is it tolerated?
The study, published in the Journal of Social Psychology, sheds some light on the phenomenon. In a series of two studies, the Russian author presented approximately 960 college students with vignettes in which a person demonstrating sexist behavior was shown to be either intelligent or unintelligent. Some of the results are perhaps predictable; others more surprising.
For example, it was shown that a sexist’s perceived intelligence increased participants’ willingness to interact (e.g., form a friendship) with them in the future. This was true of both women and men. Additionally, both men and women found female harassment (of a male) as less severe. Surprisingly, however, both male and female participants preferred an intelligent sexist (based on a vignette of workplace harassment) over an unintelligent nonsexist.
The results demonstrate how different personality and cognitive traits are weighted and treated when forming an opinion about somebody. It seems that, in general, we give greater importance to intelligence than to adhering to prosocial norms—at least to the extent to which these norms were captured by the present study.
“As for understanding of perceptions of sexism, the results mean that even though sexism is considered as a negative characteristic of a person and socially undesirable behavior, its significance in the formation of impressions is leveled if a person has other positive characteristics,” wrote study author Elena Agadullina in her research article. “As a result, people are ready to interact and maintain close relationships with sexists (if they are, for example, smart), which indirectly can spread the idea that sexism is actually not a problem, and, therefore, support gender inequality in society.”
Understanding why we collectively forgive sexists and others who demonstrate antisocial and prejudicial behaviors is key to combating them. On both personal and cultural levels, once warned is twice armed when it comes to mitigating the negative effects of heuristics and mental shortcuts.
The study also reinforces the importance of speaking out against sexism, as this is known to increase its perceived unacceptability, which in turn will affect how we weight sexism against other positive attributes to form a global opinion of interlocuters.
The study, “When sexism is not a problem: The role of perceived intelligence in willingness to interact with someone who is sexist“, was published September 22, 2020.