Political Psychology

New study sheds light on why women tend to have greater animosity towards political opponents

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New research suggests there is a gender gap in affective polarization: Women in the United States tend to be more hostile than men towards their political rivals. The findings, which have been published in the journal American Politics Research, indicate that this gender gap is related to women’s stronger partisan identities and stronger attitudes about abortion.

“In the media, women politicians are often stereotyped as consensus building and willing to work across party lines,” said study author Heather Louise Ondercin (@HeatherOndercin), an assistant professor at Appalachian State University.

“This portrayal of women did not match what we know about women’s political behavior, mainly that they hold stronger partisan attachments than men. We wanted to figure out how women’s political identities and issue positions shaped their feelings towards the parties compared to men.”

The researchers analyzed data collected from 1980 to 2016 by the American National Election Studies. In the nationally representative surveys, the participants were asked to indicate how warmly or coldly they feel towards the Democratic and Republican Party on a visual “thermometer” scale — which was used as a measure of affective polarization.

“Women are slightly more affectively polarized than men, meaning that there is a larger difference between women’s feelings towards their political party and their feelings towards the other political party,” Ondercin told PsyPost.

The surveys also asked how strongly the participants identified with their political party, and whether they considered themselves extremely liberal, liberal, slightly liberal, moderate or middle of the road, slightly conservative, extremely conservative. In addition, the surveys assessed attitudes towards social welfare and abortion.

All of these factors helped to explain the difference between men and women in regards to affective polarization.

“These differences in affective polarization are a function of the strength in political identities and issue positions. Women hold stronger partisan identities than men, and the strength of these partisan identities matters more for women than men. In addition to partisanship, women’s stronger attitudes about abortion contribute to the gender gap in affective polarization,” Ondercin explained.

The researchers controlled for variables such as race, income, education, region, age, employment status, religious tradition, church attendance, and marital status. But — like all research — the study includes some limitations.

“One question steaming from this project is, why do women hold stronger partisan identities? We find that women’s higher levels of affective polarization are partially a result of women holding stronger partisan identities. Other research also finds that women tend to hold stronger social identities and attribute this to women’s being more pro-social. More work needs to be done to understand what role pro-social behavior plays in the formation and strength of partisan identities,” Ondercin said.

The study, “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling: How Gender Shapes Affective Polarization“, Heather Louise Ondercin and Mary Kate Lizotte