Aggressive voters tolerate uncivil candidates — unless those candidates are women

March 10, 2021

Male and female candidates get judged differently for aggressiveness. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown)

Voters with aggressive personalities don't mind uncivil behaviors by candidates on the campaign trail, new research found, except when those politicians are women — a finding that emphasizes the price female office-seekers pay for subverting gender stereotypes. 

According to an article published March 1 in Political Psychology, voters of either gender who are high in trait aggression — the tendency to respond to certain situations with physical and verbal actions intended to cause harm — tolerate uncivil male politicians more than their low-aggression peers, but punish women candidates for uncivil behavior as much as the broader population.

That's because, like many voters, they view aggressive conduct by women as a violation of gender norms and are likely to punish them for it, according to Nichole Bauer, author of the study and an assistant professor at Louisiana State University. The dynamic limits women's room to maneuver in a political arena shaped by stereotypically masculine norms, she added.

People are "more uncomfortable with it [incivility] from women because you have a woman who's engaging in a stereotypically masculine activity in a stereotypically masculine role," Bauer told The Academic Times.

The disjuncture between people's expectations for "feminine" women and a female politician's aggressive behavior is what drives even individuals who are aggressive themselves to evaluate combative female candidates negatively, according to Bauer.

While aggressive individuals tend to tolerate uncivil male candidates, "There has to be a match between the role, the gender and the behavior, and they're really reacting [in the study] to the incongruity between the woman and [her] masculine behavior and the masculine gender role," she said.

Bauer and co-authors Nathan Kalmoe and Erica Russell brought together their interests in gender, aggression and voter perceptions amid the 2018 U.S. midterm elections. As they tracked developments in increasingly testy congressional races, Bauer said, the researchers wondered whether voters energized by aggressive showings from male candidates would feel the same about aggressive women.

The paper was inspired in part by the antics of Republican congressional candidate Greg Gianforte, who made headlines in 2017 after body-slamming a reporter; his actions earned praise from then-President Donald Trump, and Gianforte went on to win his election. 

While the researchers' investigation probed reactions to less extreme forms of incivility, Bauer said, they wanted to know, "What would happen if a woman did [similar] types of things?"

They developed two experiments to gauge how voters perceived male and female political candidates engaged in uncivil debate tactics. The tactics included yelling "You're lying!" at one's opponent, interrupting them frequently and "aggressively approach[ing]" their podium, actions the researchers chose as examples of verbal aggression and physical dominance, respectively.

Both experiments were embedded in fictionalized news articles describing a debate between two same-party candidates running in a congressional primary, with names indicating one was a man and the other was a woman. 

Respondents were given scenarios where the candidates shared their own party affiliation in order to minimize the effects out-party hostility might have on the results, focusing instead on how aggressive voters viewed uncivil behaviors and whether the situations posed specific challenges for women.

The first study, administered online to 372 undergraduates at Louisiana State University, manipulated whether the man or woman acted uncivilly toward the opponent, who is said not to reciprocate the incivility. The researchers also included a control condition in which both candidates were civil toward each other.

The second, which was given online to a representative sample of 801 adult Americans, replicated the three conditions from the first, while adding conditions involving two-sided incivility as well as scenarios involving only male candidates.

All respondents were randomly assigned to one of the experimental conditions and asked to evaluate the candidates' favorability. They had already answered questions designed to objectively measure either their trait aggression or their level of conflict orientation, giving the researchers enough data to investigate whether aggressive personalities influenced individuals' perceptions of aggressive, uncivil behavior in office-seekers.

The experiments both showed that, in cases where one candidate was uncivil and the other didn't reciprocate, respondents punished the uncivil politician with lower favorability ratings regardless of sex. When the female candidate is uncivil, the proportion of respondents rating her "very" or "somewhat favorable" slid from 0.83 to 0.18 in the both-civil control condition; when the man was uncivil, the proportion dropped from 0.70 to 0.12.

In cases of two-sided incivility, the researchers found that women who instigate aggressive behavior suffer a a larger drop in favorability than men who start uncivil exchanges on the debate stage. The proportion of respondents calling the instigating female candidate "very" or "somewhat favorable" dipped by 0.44, compared to a 0.31 decline for the instigating male politician.

The researchers also found evidence that respondents high in trait aggression aren't as put off by uncivil male candidates as their lower-aggression counterparts, in line with their hypothesis that aggressive personalities moderate the impact that uncivil behavior has on a person's opinion of a politician.

Among high-aggression respondents, the change in probability of rating a male candidate somewhat unfavorable when he engages in one-sided incivility was only -0.02, compared to a much steeper -0.51 among low-aggression respondents. Similar effects were observed in cases where incivility was reciprocated.

Against the researchers' expectations, however, they found that even relatively aggressive respondents punished women candidates for their incivility at about the same rates as less aggressive participants did. When the female candidate was portrayed as having instigated such behavior, they discovered, aggressive respondents' candidate evaluations weren't significantly different from evaluations from low-aggression individuals.

That finding suggests that while men and women both face penalties for incivility among the population as a whole, women who adopt an uncivil posture may pay a steeper price, losing support even from individuals who seem not to mind aggression and incivility by men.

"They can't leverage it in the same strategic ways that men can, and they're not going to be able to mobilize voters in the same ways that men can" around the aggressive tactics, Bauer said, noting male candidates can use incivility as a rhetorical "call to battle" in a way women would face criticism for.

While it's open for debate whether politicians ought to engage their opponents politely or not, she added, much of the flak women receive for their uncivil campaign tactics likely stems from gender stereotypes people hold rather than a broader concern for democratic norms.

"That can be really dangerous," she said. "When we engage in critiques of women who are behaving in ways that aren't good for democracy [but] couch those critiques in gendered terms, then it becomes a critique about her as a woman and not about her as a leader."

The article "Candidate Aggression and Gendered Voter Evaluations," published March 1 in Political Psychology, was authored by Nichole M. Bauer, Nathan P. Kalmoe and Erica B. Russell, Louisiana State University.

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