Women Are Judged Harshly for Showing Too Much Emotion and Not Enough

Cassiopeia, May 1866.
Photo: Julia Margaret Cameron/SSPL/National Media Museum

Just in the past few weeks, we’ve learned a thing or two about what happens when you express your emotions and you happen to be a lady. The latest example, according to a recent study: When women show anger, people tend to find their arguments less persuasive. So maybe, maddeningly, the thing to do to work with this common perception is to show a little emotional restraint. 

This was the theory, anyway, behind some new research published in the journal Emotion, which science writer Tom Jacobs explored this week for Pacific Standard. The researchers, led by Ursula Hess at Berlin’s Humboldt University, approached their study with the hypothesis that people who have a delayed emotional response — that is, they think for a moment before reacting — would be viewed as more intelligent than those who displayed knee-jerkier responses. 

And that is indeed what they found — for the men in their study. “For women, however, the opposite pattern emerged, in that they were perceived as more emotionally competent and intelligent when they reacted immediately,” they write. In one of the experiments, for example, researchers first showed the study volunteers images that were supposed to make them feel either sad or angry — it’s not clear what those images were, exactly, but in similar studies experimenters will sometimes use heartbreaking news photos from war-torn nations. Then they watched a video that depicted several people looking at those same pictures and reacting.

Jacobs further explains:

The videos were manipulated so that half of the actors reacted immediately (a half-second) after the image was shown, while the others didn’t show any change in facial expression for 1.5 seconds. In a pre-test, participants “rated the expression with the longer delay as slower, less-spontaneous, and … more restrained,” the researchers note.

Afterward, the participants rated the people in the video on a number of things, including intelligence and “emotional competence.” The women who took a few beats before reacting were rated as lower in both of these measures than the women who responded more immediately; the opposite was true, however, for the guys. The researchers muse that this might be because women are stereotypically thought to be more emotionally reactive, and so when they don’t act accordingly, their behavior might be seen as calculated or strategic. 

To recap: Women who express their emotions aren’t taken seriously, but emotional restraint doesn’t do much good, either. So, be emotional, or don’t! If each option is about equally bad, maybe the best bet here is to just do what you’re going to do.

The Downside of Emotional Restraint