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Perceptions of aggression are colored by gender roles.

Gender differences in aggression have been extensively studied. Generally, men are perceived as more aggressive, men score higher on self-report measures of aggression, and men are more likely to be the targets of most aggressive acts (e.g., Baron and Richardson 1994; Richardson and Green 1999; Harris 1995). However, some researchers have argued that gender as a binary distinction (male vs. female) does not sufficiently account for differences in aggression and perceptions of aggression. These researchers have suggested that gender roles--an individual's level of masculinity and/or femininity--are better predictors of aggression than gender in and of itself (Hammock and Richardson 1992; Richardson and Hammock 2007; Spence and Helmreich 1978).

Masculinity and femininity can be described as an individual's endorsement and internalization of culturally defined norms about the male and female gender role, and individual men and women may embrace or reject these roles to different degrees (Fleck 1995; Pleck et al. 1993). The endorsement of a masculine gender role has been shown to be significantly and positively associated with direct aggressive behavior in men (Bushman et al. 2001). In addition, several studies have indicated that targets who violate traditional gender roles tend to evoke more aggressive responses from participants who endorse traditional gender roles (e.g., Franklin 2000; Reidy et al. 2009; Parrott and Zeichner 2003). In summary, the perception of the gender role of a target of aggression may influence the level of aggression directed toward that target.

Several studies have also focused on how the gender of an aggressor influences the perceptions of that aggression. Stewart-Williams (2002) used multiple vignettes in which the aggressor and the target were varied between male and female, and the level of aggression was shouting or shouting and then bumping into the target of the aggression. Participants in this study made distinctions between male and female aggressors and generally rated men's aggression as less acceptable that the same aggression by a female. Further, when participants were presented with pictures of children playing, more aggression was attributed to the children when the picture included boys than when it included girls, even when the boys and the girls were behaving comparably (Lyons and Serbin 1986). Taken together, these two studies indicate that aggression may be perceived differently based on the gender of the perpetrator. In both children and adults, males are perceived as more aggressive even if their behavior is similar to that of females. Bjorkqvist (1994) has also noted that the nature of the aggressive dyad (male-male, female-female or male-female) is of "critical importance" for understanding how aggression is perceived. Thus, gender--both the gender of an aggressor and a target--plays an important role in understanding how aggressive acts are perceived.

However, few--if any--studies have examined how aggression is perceived based on the gender role (masculinity vs. femininity) of the aggressor. Unless explicitly manipulated, males are typically associated with masculine traits and females with feminine traits. The current study, however, explicitly manipulated the gender roles of an aggressor. If gender, in and of itself, influences how aggression is perceived, then ratings of aggressiveness were expected to differ based on the gender of the opponent. In other words, based on previous research, men should be rated as more aggressive than women (Stewart-Williams 2002). If, however, gender roles influence how aggression is perceived, then ratings of aggressiveness were expected to differ based on whether the opponent was described as masculine or feminine.

The data presented here were taken from a larger, ongoing examination of aggression in men. Participants in the study were given information about the gender of a (bogus) opponent in a competitive reaction-time task, as well as information that indicated whether their opponent was stereotypically masculine or feminine. After completion of the competitive task (designed to measure aggression), the participants were asked about the aggressiveness of their opponent.



Forty-five male undergraduate students ([M.sub.Age]=21.05) from the University of North Dakota participated in the laboratory portion of a larger study from which the current data were derived. Participants were largely Caucasian (N=38), with one participant self-identifying as Native American, one self-identifying as Middle Eastern, one self-identifying as African American, one self-identifying as Asian, and one self-identifying as Hispanic. Two participants self-identified as being of mixed race. At the end of the laboratory session, participants were given the option to receive either research credit for their psychology courses or USD $10 as compensation for their time.

Materials Participants completed a modified Bern Sex Role Inventory (BSRI; Bern 1974). Fifty-eight items from the BSRI--excluding two items involving aggression and competition'--were answered on a five-point Likert-type scale. These items asked respondents to indicate the degree to which they endorse one trait or another (i.e., not at all independent vs. very independent). Participants also answered four short-answer questions related to general personality traits, such as, if your best friend were asked to describe you in three words, what would he/she say? These questions are presented in the Appendix. The participant was told that he would be exchanging BSRI forms with his opponent so that they could "get to know each other better prior to the competition." This allowed us to provide the participant with information about the gender and gender role of his (bogus) competitor.

The information that each participant received about his bogus opponent was crafted to imply that the competitor was male or female (clearly marked), as well as masculine or feminine. In all conditions, the bogus competitor was portrayed as heterosexual to rule out sexual orientation as a potential confounding trait. The answers to the questions from the BSRI portrayed a person who possessed either masculine traits or feminine traits. Thus, the answers to the questions on the BSR1, as well as the answers to the four open-ended questions, were identical for the feminine male and feminine female and the answers for the masculine male and masculine female were also identical.


The participants in this experiment were recruited to participate in a competitive reaction-time task. Participants were told that they would be competing against another student in a reaction-time competition. The opponent was supposedly seated in an adjoining room. The experimenter presented the participant with the BSRI from his opponent and gave him a couple of minutes to read it. Participants had completed the BSRI online prior to completing the laboratory portion of the study, and the experimenter printed out this information prior to laboratory participation. After reading information about his competitor, the participant was seated in front of a computer in order to participate in a modified version of the Taylor Aggression Paradigm (TAP; Taylor 1967).

During the TAP, participants completed 20 trials of a reaction-time task. After each trial, the program informed the participant that he either won or lost. If the participant "won" the trial, he was allowed to choose a shock intensity from 1 to 10 to deliver to the opponent. If the participant "lost" the trial, he received a shock. Thus, the participant believed that his opponent administered the shock, but the shock was actually administered by the computer program. The order of wins and losses was predetermined and standardized across participants, so that each participant received the same number of shocks, at the same levels of intensity, after the same trials. Thus, the "competitors" all displayed the same objective level of aggression.

Following the reaction-time task, each participant was asked about his perceptions of the opponent. In order to determine each participant's perception of the aggressiveness of his opponent, he was asked, how would you describe the competitiveness and/or aggressiveness of your opponent? Participants were probed for suspicion using an open-ended, write-in question. Participants were then debriefed, given a choice between research credit or USD S10, and thanked for their time.


Three participants indicated suspicion about the experimental procedures, so their data were eliminated from further analyses. The analyses presented here are based on 42 participants. Of these participants, ten competed against a masculine female opponent, ten competed against a masculine male, 11 competed against a feminine female, and 11 competed against a feminine male.

All participants answered the question, how would you describe the competitiveness and/or aggressiveness of your opponent? with terms related to aggression, such as not very aggressive, not aggressive, aggressive, or very aggressive. Answers were then categorized as either aggressive or nonag-gressive. For example, if a participant answered aggressive or very aggressive, the response was coded as "aggressive". If a participant answered not very aggressive or not aggressive, the answer was coded as "not aggressive".

To reiterate, all participants received the exact same number of shocks, at the same intensity levels, regardless of how the bogus opponent was portrayed. Thus, the objective level of aggression from the opponent, operationally defined as shock, was the same for all participants. Figure 1 presents the proportion of opponents that were rated as aggressive within each condition. Masculine opponents were rated as aggressive, regardless of gender. A series of three chi-square analyses were performed to determine whether the gender and/or gender role of the opponent were significantly associated with being rated as aggressive. The first analysis was based on categorizing participant responses into a 4 (masculine male vs. masculine female vs. feminine male vs. feminine female) x 2 (aggressive vs. nonaggressive) matrix. This analysis indicated that there was a significant association between the gender/gender role combination of the opponent and whether that opponent was rated as aggressive or not aggressive, [x.sup.2] (3, n=42)=11.20, p=.011. To examine this further, two subsequent analyses were conducted--one for gender x aggression and one for gender role x aggression. The association between gender of the opponent and whether the opponent was rated as aggressive was not significant, [x.sup.2] (1, n=42)=0.104, p= .500. However, there was a significant association between the gender role of the opponent and whether the opponent was rated as aggressive, [x.sup.2] (1, n=42)=10.10, p= .001.



In the past, perceptions of aggression as it relates to gender have focused only on the gender of the target or the gender of the aggressor. The current study, however, focused not only on the gender of an aggressor, but also the gender role of an aggressor. We found that the gender of the aggressor did not significantly affect ratings of aggression, but that the differences in the gender role of an aggressor led to differences in the perceived aggressiveness. It is important to remember the ostensible opponent's actual level of aggression was identical, regardless of gender or gender role, because the aggression was predetermined and standardized by the primary investigator prior to the beginning of the study. Despite the fact that the number, level, and timing of shocks were held constant, participants who believed that their opponent was masculine perceived the opponent's actions as significantly more aggressive than participants who believed that their opponent was feminine.

These findings have implications for the study of gender differences in aggression. Previous studies have indicated that men are perceived as more aggressive than women; however, this may oversimplify the complexity of the issue. The situation in which a woman is embedded may color perceptions about her gender role. In situations in which a woman is perceived as adopting a masculine gender role (e.g., the business world, sports), her actions may be interpreted differently than if the same actions were performed in a more feminine setting (e.g. traditionally feminine jobs, such as nursing). The setting in which she is acting may influence perceptions about her gender role, and by extension, perceptions about her level of aggressiveness. This is a promising question for future research.

On the other hand, explicitly portraying an individual as feminine or masculine may also influence judgments of aggressiveness in real-world situations with important consequences. A man who is perceived as masculine may display the same level of aggression as a man perceived as feminine, but the masculine man's actions may be viewed as more aggressive. Within the legal domain, a man who is portrayed as feminine to the members of the jury may be judged as less aggressive, and perhaps less dangerous, than a more masculine man, despite the objective description of his actions.

Knowledge of gender roles in the relatively gender-neutral environment of the laboratory changed the participants' perceptions of gender roles, but in the real world where there are more cues to gender role, such cues are likely coloring the judgments of behaviors in all situations. While it is relatively easy in the laboratory to state that the opponent is a feminine male, such distinctions outside the laboratory are much more difficult to make due to assumptions people may hold about how gender affects gender roles and general stereotypes regarding dress, mannerisms, and gender.

This study has several limitations. First and foremost, the sample size was rather small. Second, the participants were male undergraduate students, so the results cannot be easily generalized to female participants or to a non-college population. Finally, variables such as sexual orientation and broader context were not addressed in this particular study. Nonetheless, the results of this study seem to indicate that perceived gender roles influence how behavior is perceived in a laboratory context.


Additional Questions on BSRI Questionnaire and Standardized Answers

1. What are your career goals?

Masculine: At this point I'd like to do corporate law; ultimately, I'd like to be a partner in a large firm.

Feminine: I really like working with people and making them feel better. I am at UND to get my Nursing degree. I hope to be an R.N. after I graduate.

2. How important is it for you to be monogamous in relationships?

Masculine: While I think two people in a committed relationship should be monogamous, I don't really see the point of committed relationships. I think people should just have fun, especially in college.

Feminine: I value monogamy very much. I think if two people (women or men) agree to be in a relationship, they should remain faithful to each other.

3. How long does it usually take you to get ready in the morning? How important is it to you to always look your best?

Masculine: I usually only take a few minutes to get ready in the morning. I like to look good, but I don't see the point of spending a lot of time to sit in class all day.

Feminine: I always get up at least two hours before I have to be anywhere so that I can take a shower and carefully pick out my outfit for the day. I like to always look my best.

4. If your best friend were asked to describe you in three words, what would he/she say?

Masculine: Stubborn, Pushy, Non-traditional Feminine: Gentle, Understanding, Kind


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The BSR1 items regarding competitiveness and aggressiveness were removed from the questionnaire to prevent the participants from forming opinions about competitiveness and/or aggressiveness prior to completing the reaction-time task.

H. M. Borhut * H. K. Terrell (2)

Department of Psychology, University of North Dakota, Grand Forks, ND 58202-8380, USA e-mail:
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Author:Borhart, Hannah M.; Terrell, Heather K.
Publication:The Psychological Record
Article Type:Report
Date:Sep 1, 2014
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