Psychologists have found that the desire to perceive humans as distinct from other animals is linked to the endorsement of sexist beliefs.
The study, published in the journal Feminism & Psychology, surveyed 148 male college students regarding their beliefs about women, meaning in life, and the relationship between humans and animals. The more the students believed that humans were distinct from and superior to other animals, the more they endorsed sexist attitudes about women. Students who believed in greater belief in animal–human distinctiveness and had a stronger feeling that their life was meaningful.
PsyPost interviewed Christina Roylance of North Dakota State University about her study. Read her responses below:
PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?
Roylance: This topic represents an integration between my two main areas of interest–existential psychology, and issues related to sexism and the objectification of women. I am interested in how and why people are motivated to find and maintain a sense of meaning in life. Often, people’s avenues for pursuing meaning are not always positive or healthy. On the other hand, I am very interested in what might motivate people to hold derogatory views towards women. I believe that terror management perspective can provide answers to both of those questions. The idea that attitudes towards human-animal continuity being related not only to meaning in life, but to sexism were inspired by the terror management framework.
What should the average person take away from your study?
The basic takeaway is that attitudes regarding human uniqueness and superiority appear to be associated with meaning and life, as well as sexism, at least among men. This indicates that these attitudes can contribute to meaning (feeling that we are superior as a species is definitely meaning-providing), but it might be at the cost of also holding derogatory attitudes towards women. An understanding of TMT can help us understand how these seemingly unrelated attitudes contribute to both of these outcomes.
Basically, it is the notion that women’s bodies are threatening to our pursuit to feel meaningful and death-transcendent, because their role in reproduction reminds us of our connection to animality and our corporeal, mortal nature. Therefore, being more attached to the notion of human distinctiveness could presumably lead to negative attitudes towards women, despite conferring meaning benefits.
Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?
It would be very interesting to see if this effect replicates among women. I focused on men in this study because obviously men tend to be higher in self-reported sexism. Would belief in human distinctiveness lead to more sexist attitudes among women? Can a woman derive meaning from these attitudes, despite the fact that it might be at the expense of having internalized notions of sexism, or possibly self-directed hatred?
The study, “I am not an animal but I am a sexist: Human distinctiveness, sexist attitudes towards women, and perceptions of meaning in life,” was co-authored by Andrew A. Abeyta and Clay Routledge.