Study finds a woman’s marital surname choice influences perceptions of her husband

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The pending nuptials of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle have royal watchers brushing up on royal naming practices and asking ‘what’s in a name?’

A new study led by a UNLV psychology professor shows that a wife’s choice of surnames may influence perceptions of her husband’s personality and the distribution of power in the marriage.

In a three-part study conducted in the U.S. and the U.K., Rachael Robnett and her coauthors concluded that men whose wives retain their own surnames after marriage are seen as submissive and less powerful in the relationship.

The study, published on Nov. 21, is the first to examine whether perceptions of a man’s personality vary depending on whether his wife takes his name or retains her own.

“The marital surname tradition is more than just a tradition. It reflects subtle gender-role norms and ideologies that often remain unquestioned despite privileging men,” said Robnett, an assistant professor of psychology at UNLV.

Using a variety of research methods, researchers found a connection between gender-typed personality traits and perceived power dynamics. Traditionally, instrumentality or aggressive and dominant traits are associated with higher status and power and are often ascribed to men. Expressivity or more loving and nurturing traits tend to be associated with lower status and power and are often ascribed to women. However, findings in Robnett’s study show perceptions of these gender norms change based on a woman’s surname choices.

“Our findings indicate that people extrapolate from marital surname choices to make more general inferences about a couple’s gender-typed personality traits,” she said.

In study 1, the researchers surveyed U.S. undergraduates and asked them to characterize a man whose wife retains her surname after marriage. Respondents described the man using expressive traits and commented that he was “caring,” “understanding,” “timid,” and “submissive.”

In study 2, participants in southeast England read a vignette about a fictional engaged couple and took a survey about their perceptions of the woman’s surname choices. Respondents perceived the man as higher in expressive traits and lower in instrumental traits when the woman retained her own surname.

In study 3, also conducted with U.S. undergraduates, the researchers examined whether hostile sexism, or an antagonistic attitude toward women, helps to explain individual differences in participants’ responses to questions of power in a fictional marriage. Respondents who held firmly to traditional gender roles and can be described as hostile sexists perceived a man whose wife retained her surname as being disempowered.

“We know from prior research that people high in hostile sexism respond negatively to women who violate traditional gender roles,” Robnett said. “Our findings show that they also apply stereotypes to nontraditional women’s husbands.”