Psychology professor’s work breaks new ground for UF

Published: November 12th, 2013

Category: Spotlights

Kate Ratliff for spotlight feature requested by Ron Wayne

Kate Ratliff wanted to discover how men and women in relationships felt about each other’s successes: The news may be surprising to men.

Her recently published research indicated men were insecure when their spouse or partner did better than them even though they didn’t express it outwardly.

“We found that men’s gut-level, subconscious self-esteem was much lower when they thought about their partner succeeding than when they thought about their partner failing,” said Ratliffe, a University of Florida assistant psychology professor. That was not the case, however, for women.

Her colleague, James Shepperd, a social psychology professor at UF, said Ratliff’s study of automatic attitudes, a growing subject of study the past 10 years, marks a new step for the department.

“We’ve never had anyone who does that,” Shepperd said. “She’s done some studies that make you just go, ‘wow, that’s really clever the way she does it.’”

Ratliff and a researcher at the University of Virginia, Shige Oishi, gathered 700 participants, all in heterosexual romantic relationships, and conducted five studies online, on the University of Virginia campus, and overseas in the Netherlands.

“We were initially interested in how people in successful romantic relationships navigate each other’s ups and downs,” Ratliff said.

Couples were separated, then each asked to think about an important success or failure that their partner had experienced. They were then given an Implicit Association Test to measure implicit self-esteem. By tracking how fast people paired self-related words with positive or negative words, Ratliff was able to note how men and women felt about themselves after thinking about a partner’s success or failure.

She said the men likely weren’t even aware of their emotional response of low self-esteem.

The men did not report feeling worse about themselves, but it showed up at an “automatic, gut-level.” She believes these feelings of inferiority stem from gender expectations that people have internalized.

“The men who feel bad about themselves aren’t saying, ‘I don’t think women should be successful,’” Ratliff said. “But they still experience this negative emotional reaction deep down.”

Human behavior enthralled Ratliff since her days as an undergraduate at Belmont University, she said. What compelled people to share some thoughts and edit others? What was going on inside people’s minds that they couldn’t or wouldn’t report?

“I really liked the idea of trying to understand real world social behavior,” Ratliff said.

Ratliff plowed through her undergraduate years at Belmont with these questions in mind and moved onto research about automatic, subconscious attitudes and stereotypes during graduate school at the University of Virginia.

Her next goal is to test this phenomenon on a different demographic: couples who have remained together for a long time.

Writer: Zack Peterson

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