Researchers found that men were more likely to feel subconsciously worse about themselves when their female partner succeeded than when she failed. (Agencies)
However, women's self-esteem was not affected by their male partners' successes or failures, according to the study published in the American Psychological Association Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
"It makes sense that a man might feel threatened if his girlfriend outperforms him in something they're doing together, such as trying to lose weight," said the study's lead author, Kate Ratliff, of the University of Florida.
"But this research found evidence that men automatically interpret a partner's success as their own failure, even when they're not in direct competition," Ratliff said.
The researchers studied 896 heterosexual Americans and Dutch in five experiments. In one experiment, 32 couples from the University of Virginia were given what was described as a "test of problem solving and social intelligence" and then told that their partner scored either in the top or bottom 12 percent of all university students.
Hearing that their partner scored high or low on the test did not affect what the researchers called participants' explicit self-esteem – i.e., how they said they felt.
Participants were also given a test to determine how they felt subconsciously about their partners' performance, which the researchers called implicit self-esteem.
In this test, a computer tracks how quickly people associate good and bad words with themselves. For example, participants with high implicit self-esteem who see the word ‘me’ on a computer screen are more likely to associate it with words such as ‘excellent’ or ‘good’ rather than ‘bad’.
Men who believed that their partner scored in the top 12 percent demonstrated significantly lower implicit self-esteem than men who believed their partner scored in the bottom 12 percent.
Findings were similar in two more studies conducted in the Netherlands. Like American men, Dutch men who thought about their romantic partner's success subconsciously felt worse about themselves than men who thought about their partner's failure, according to both studies.
In the final two experiments, conducted online, 657 US participants, 284 of whom were men, were asked to think about a time when their partner had succeeded or failed.
When comparing all the results, the researchers found that it didn't matter if the achievements or failures were social, intellectual or related to participants' own successes or failures - men subconsciously still felt worse about themselves when their partner succeeded than when she failed.
Also, men's implicit self-esteem took a bigger hit when they thought about a time when their partner succeeded at something while they had failed.
Researchers found that men were more likely to feel subconsciously worse about themselves when their female partner succeeded than when she failed.