Ambitious women and “fake news”

There has been a lot of hand-wringing in the past few days about the proliferation offake news” — sensational and completely false stories, often with political overtones (“Secrets of Obama’s birth revealed!”, “FBI agent set to testify against Hillary MURDERED!”), that can spread like wildfire through the social media. Some believe these fake stories, which tend to skew right, may have brought Donald Trump into the White House. Meanwhile, conservative outlets such as The Federalist have argued that the liberal media are just as likely to spread falsehoods (like the “Hands up, don’t shoot!” narrative of Michael Brown’s police shooting in Ferguson) and mislead the reader.

I think the conservatives have an excellent point. And here’s an example I came across the other day while doing research for an upcoming article on gender and the 2016 election.

There have been a lot of stories, both before and after the election, arguing that Hillary Clinton’s struggles show how persistent and persvasive misogyny remains in America. There’s a lot to say about this argument, and I’ll say it in my upcoming piece, but for now I’ll focus on one particular nugget.

In an October story in The Atlantic titled “Fear of a Female President,” Peter Beinart wrote:

Given the anxieties that powerful women provoke, it’s not surprising that both men and women judge them more harshly than they judge powerful men. A 2010 study by Victoria L. Brescoll and Tyler G. Okimoto found that people’s views of a fictional male state senator did not change when they were told he was ambitious. When told that a fictional female state senator was ambitious, however, men and women alike “experienced feelings of moral outrage,” such as contempt, anger, and disgust.

This assertion had showed up several months earlier in Quartz:

When women do overcome the ambition gap, we punish them for it. One Harvard study found that “when participants saw female politicians as power-seeking, they also saw them as having less communality (i.e., being unsupportive and uncaring), while this was not true for their perceptions of power-seeking male politicians.” Power-seeking men were seen as strong and competent. Power-seeking women were greeted by both sexes with “moral outrage.”

Since the election, it has surfaced, among other places, in a Slate piece by Michelle Goldberg titled “Donald Trump’s Victory Proves That America Hates Women” (Goldberg simply quoted Beinart’s passage) and in a Washington Post story on Trump’s victory:

Researchers Tyler Okimoto and Victoria Brescall found that people experienced “moral outrage” when they were told that a hypothetical female politician was ambitious, but nothing when they were told a male was.

The linked page summarizes the findings of the study (which had 310 participants, all Americans between the ages of 18 and 76, recruited online) as follows:

All things being equal, study participants were likely to perceive female politicians as being just about equally power-seeking as male politicians.
When participants saw male politicians as power-seeking, they also saw them as having greater agency (i.e., being more assertive, stronger, and tougher) and greater competence, while this was not true for their perceptions of power-seeking female politicians.
When participants saw female politicians as power-seeking, they also saw them as having less communality (i.e., being unsupportive and uncaring), while this was not true for their perceptions of power-seeking male politicians.
When female politicians were described as power-seeking, participants experienced feelings of moral outrage (i.e., contempt, anger, and/or disgust) towards them.
Participant gender had no impact on any of the study outcomes — that is, women were just as likely as men to have negative reactions to power-seeking female politicians.

After some digging around, I was able to find a free online copy of the study, reported in 2011 in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

The subjects were asked to read a biography of a fictional state senator, rate that senator on various qualities on a scale of 1 to 7 and indicate how willing they were to vote for him or her. The senator was identified as either “John Burr” or “Ann Burr”; half of the otherwise identical biographies contained a newspaper quote in which John/Ann was described as “one of the most ambitious politicians in Oregon” who “has always had a strong will to power,” as well as a quote from the senator saying, “Being hungry is everything…it’s key to gaining influence in politics.”

Here’s the table with the results.

Yes, it’s true that when a female politician is described as power-seeking, her ratings become more negative while those of a male politician remain unchanged. But the summaries and the media reports omit a key bit of information. When the politician is not explicitly described as power-seeking and ambitious, “Ann” is perceived more favorably than “John” — sometimes much more favorably— on everything from “agency” (strength, toughness, assertiveness) to “communality” (caring and supportiveness) to “competence.” Participants are also likely to say they will vote for her. (This echoes other recent research showing that voters of both parties tend to have a preference for female politicians.)

When power-seeking was not explicitly indicated, the mean “moral outrage” rating for “John” was .27 points higher than for “Ann”; when individual variation was taken into account, there was a 58% probability that “John” would elicit more disgust, anger, and/or contempt than “Ann” and a 56% probability that “Ann” would get a higher voting preference rating. (The “moral outrage” ratings were also fairly low for both: 1.5 and 1.23 on a 7-point scale.) When power-seeking was indicated, the female advantage was neutralized and slightly reversed. The mean “moral outrage” rating was .17 points higher for “Ann” than for “John”; with individual variation, there was approximately a 52% probability that “Ann” would elicit more “moral outrage” than “John,” and a 55% probability that “John” would get a higher voting preference rating.

Incidentally, the preliminary phase of the study also showed that when power-seeking was not explicitly indicated, the hypothetical female politician was not perceived as more ambitious or power-hungry than her male counterpart.

Do these results indicate some lingering negativity toward open ambition in women? Probably, though they also indicate a general tendency to view women somewhat positively than men when no cues about ambition are given.

However, the claim that study participants reacted with “moral outrage” toward the power-seeking female politician but not to the power-seeking male politician is, quite simply, untrue. Participants actually showed hardly any contempt, anger, or disgust for either of them (midway between 1 and 2 on a 7-point scale, i.e. between “none” and “very little”): marginally more toward the ambitious female politician, but also marginally more toward the generic male politician.

Does the coverage misrepresent the study? I think the answer is, clearly, yes. The primary fault lies with the researchers who wrote a highly misleading summary of their findings; but journalists who did not bother to find a copy of the full study and check the actual data are also to blame.

Maybe this isn’t quite up there with “FBI agent set to testify against Hillary found murdered!” as far as “fake news” goes. But it is still essentially false news that perpetuates a false narrative of deeply entrenched misogyny and feeds into anger and polarization.