Say you're chairing a meeting, and a subordinate gives you terrible news. You take a tiny bit of time—perhaps a second—to digest this information. Then your face begins to reflect a combination of sadness and anger.
Does that slightly delayed emotional reaction reflect well on you? New research suggests that depends on whether you're a man or a woman.
In two experiments, men were "rated as both more emotionally competent and more intelligent in general when they showed restraint," a research team led by Ursula Hess of Humboldt University of Berlin writes in the journal Emotion. "For women, however, the opposite pattern emerged, in that they were perceived as more emotionally competent and intelligent when they reacted immediately."
The results suggest that, when it comes to expressing emotions, we expect both men and women to live up to their gender stereotypes, and we're suspicious of those who fail to do so.
Women are chided for being too emotional, but distrusted if they respond to an emotional stimulus in a measured, "manly" way.
The first experiment featured 59 undergraduates from the University of Haifa in Israel (30 men and 29 women). They were shown one of a series of photos that had been found to elicit both sadness and anger. They then viewed four videos featuring different people supposedly reacting to that image.
The videos were manipulated so that half of the actors reacted immediately (a half-second) after the image was shown, while the others didn't show any change in facial expression for 1.5 seconds. In a pre-test, participants "rated the expression with the longer delay as slower, less-spontaneous, and ... more restrained," the researchers note.
Afterwards, the participants rated each of the characters in the videos for "emotional competence," grading them for sensitivity, level of caring, and on the appropriateness and authenticity of their reaction.
"We had predicted that people who show restraint would be perceived as more emotionally competent," the researchers write. "For male expressers, this was indeed the case. However, the pattern was reversed" for women. For them, "restraint resulted in a perception of lower emotional competence."
The second experiment, featuring 58 students, was identical to the first, except that "participants further rated the perceived intelligence of the expresser as well as how hesitant, appropriate, and authentic the reaction seemed."
The results: "Men who showed delayed reactions were perceived as significantly more intelligent than those who reacted immediately, whereas for women, delayed reactions resulted in less perceived intelligence."
According to Hess and her colleagues, these results suggest the strength of "gender stereotypes about women as more emotionally volatile, but also more emotionally competent." Given these assumptions, delayed reactions to an emotionally charged image "may be seen as strategic rather than spontaneous," they write.
Could this partly explain the widespread perception that Hillary Clinton is somehow inauthentic? Decades spent in the public eye have no doubt taught Clinton to temper her instinctive emotional reactions. But in doing so, is she seen as odd or untrustworthy because she doesn't conform to a widely believed female stereotype?
In any event, the researchers seem to have discovered another Catch-22 for professional women. They're chided for being too emotional, but distrusted if they respond to an emotional stimulus in a measured, "manly" way.
It's enough to make you sad and angry, if you think about it for a second or two.
Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.