Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Sep 23, 2019

The Appeal of Sexism to the Romantically Insecure

by Molly Fisher and Matthew Hammond
Asian man and woman

Although gender equality has come a long way, many people still hold sexist beliefs, such as believing that women are malicious and seek power over men (hostile sexism) or that women ought to be cherished and protected by men (benevolent sexism).

Both hostile and benevolent sexism are considered “sexist” because they help to maintain gender inequality. In fact, despite the romantic tone of benevolent sexism, it can have particularly negative consequences for women. For example, people who agree with benevolent sexism tend to behave in patronizing ways that undermine women’s opportunities for success.

One understudied question involves how sexism is shaped by people’s romantic relationships. In particular, we wondered whether sexist beliefs are related to people’s insecurities about romantic attachment.

There are two basic types of emotional tendencies that people may display within their romantic relationships. Some people have a good deal of anxiety about whether their romantic partners care enough about them. Psychologists would say that people who worry a lot that their partner will leave them are high in attachment anxiety

Other people worry about becoming too emotionally close to their romantic partners. Although they want to be close to their partners, they worry about being too dependent on them and would prefer to have more emotional distance in their relationships. Psychologists would say that these people are high in attachment avoidance.

To study how these two types of attachment insecurity—attachment anxiety and attachment avoidance—might be related to sexism, we asked other researchers for data that included measures of heterosexual people’s attachment styles (both attachment anxiety and attachment avoidance), as well as measures of their sexist beliefs (both hostile and benevolent sexism). We gathered 22 datasets, comprising 4,860 people in all.  We then tested how people’s attachment styles related to  their sexist beliefs. Our results showed that men and women who were higher in attachment anxiety—those who worried about not being loved sufficiently—tended to agree more with both hostile sexism and benevolent sexism. In other words, the more that people worry about not being sufficiently loved, the more likely they are to believe that women want power over men, as well as to believe that women need to be taken care of. 

Our findings for attachment avoidance—worries about being too  dependent on one’s partner—were a little more complicated. Here we found a relationship between attachment avoidance and sexist beliefs for men but not for women. Men who were higher in attachment avoidance rejected benevolent sexism more than men who were less concerned about being too dependent. In other words, the more that men wanted to be close to their romantic partners without being too dependent on them, the less likely they were to believe that women needed to be protected and taken care of.

What about hostile sexism and avoidance? Here we found a connection just for men who were in committed romantic relationships. Specifically, men who worried more about being too dependent on their partner and were in romantic relationships were more likely to believe that women want power over men.

In some ways this was our most striking finding: Men who worry about being too dependent on others and are in romantic relationships tend to be higher in hostile sexism than single men with similar worries about dependence.

Our research is consistent with the idea that one reason people hold sexist beliefs is because they want to be loved and worry about being rejected by their romantic partner. Therefore, our research suggests that to understand gender inequalities fully, we need to consider both inequality at a society level as well as the way people vary in their relationship needs.

For Additional Reading:

Fisher, M. I., & Hammond, M. D. (2019). Personal ties and prejudice: A meta-analysis of romantic attachment and ambivalent sexism. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 45(7), 1084-1098.

Hammond, M. D., & Overall, N. C. (2017). Dynamics within intimate relationships and the causes, consequences, and functions of sexist attitudes. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 26(2), 120-125.

Hart, J., Hung, J. A., Glick, P., & Dinero, R. (2012). He loves her, he loves her not: Attachment style as a personality antecedent to men’s ambivalent sexism. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38, 1495-1505.

Glick, P., & Fiske, S. T. (2001). An ambivalent alliance: Hostile and benevolent sexism as complementary justifications for gender inequality. American Psychologist, 56, 109-118.


Molly I. Fisher is a doctoral candidate in Psychology at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. She is interested in how sexist attitudes influence the way people seek support from those around them.  Matthew D. Hammond is a Lecturer in Psychology at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. His research examines how people’s endorsement of sexist attitudes influence, and are influenced by, interpersonal processes.

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Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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