A brief report published in the journal Psychology of Men & Masculinities examined the role of gratitude in mitigating the adverse well-being effects associated with salient male privilege, such as feeling like an imposter. The researchers found that gratitude served as a buffer for men, neutralizing the threat of privilege salience.
“In the spirit of trying to do courses on topics that ‘matter’ (like my other offerings about death, religion, good, and evil), I first offered a 4th-year seminar on the psychology of men in the Winter 2021 term. Connery Knox – my student-turned-coauthor – submitted a final paper that raised the possibility that drawing attention to gender-based privilege could undermine men’s sense of personal well-being by stirring up impostor-type feelings. I recalled that Branscombe (1998) showed that salient gender-related privilege can undercut men’s collective well-being – that is, their sense of connection with men as a group – as well,” said Christopher T. Burris, a professor of psychology at the St. Jerome’s University within the University of Waterloo.
“Given that most people aren’t in the space to have constructive, good-faith dialogue about sensitive issues when they’re feeling threatened, I wondered whether there was a simple way to blunt the negative personal and collective impacts of gender-related privilege salience on men,” he explained.
“I remembered Barack Obama’s ‘You didn’t build that’ speech in which he tried to make the point that not one of us is 100% responsible for the good things in our lives: We’ve all had help from someone else. As it turned out, reflecting on help from others beforehand indeed appeared to ‘take the teeth out of’ privilege salience among men in a way that being reminded of positive outcomes resulting from chance or one’s own efforts did not.”
Male privilege refers to “unearned societal benefits based on gender.” Awareness of this phenomenon is associated with greater understanding of gender-related issues and less support for hegemonic masculinity. Prior research has suggested that salient male privilege can motivate men to distance themselves from other men and experience lower self-esteem. This could perhaps be explained by the perceived illegitimacy of their ingroup’s benefits as well as feeling like an imposter.
Could gratitude – a reflective experience that is interpersonal in its nature – neutralize the adverse effects of salient gender-based privilege among men? Burris and Knox sought to answer this question.
A total of 245 undergraduate men were assigned to one of six combinations of benefit and male privilege salience reflection tasks. Three of these conditions were combinations of privilege and no gratitude, two were interpersonally focused (gratitude) conditions, and one was a neutral baseline that did not have a benefit or privilege salience reflection task.
In the privilege task, participants were prompted to list the three most significant ways their gender provided them with an advantage. Before this, participants who were assigned to a condition other than “no reflection” or “privilege only” were prompted to reflect on a specific episode in which something good happened, and it was clear that this outcome came to be because of [their own efforts/circumstances/efforts of one or more others], and why [their own efforts made this happen/what happened/who made it happen] and the feelings that emerged as a result.
Afterwards, participants completed measures of gender group identification, self-esteem, imposter-related feelings, positive (e.g., hopeful, confident) and negative (e.g., powerless, ashamed) emotions, gratitude, and provided demographic information. Participants were then asked to describe an unrelated positive experience to offset any adverse effects of privilege salience.
Burris and Knox found that the privilege and no gratitude combinations were associated with higher imposter feelings and lower gender group identification compared to the no-reflection condition; in contrast, gratitude condition participants’ scores on these variables didn’t differ from those of control condition participants. Thus, when salient male privilege was not buffered by gratitude, it led to lower gender group identification and higher imposter feelings among men, even if they had reflected beforehand on positive outcomes that stemmed from their own efforts or circumstances.
“Without a doubt, serious conversations about privilege are worth having, but most people aren’t in the space to engage in constructive, good-faith dialogue about sensitive issues when they’re feeling threatened. Reflecting on the good things in one’s life that are only there because of someone else – things that may have nothing to do with privilege – helps to defuse threat, and therefore *may* help those who are privileged in any context to be more engaged and empathic listeners. We suspect that’s when the most productive conversations will happen,” Burris told PsyPost.
Are there questions that still need answers?
Burris said that “we’ve shown that focusing on other-provided benefits reduces some of the negative personal and collective well-being impacts of gender-based privilege salience in men. Whether that indeed allows men to be more open to difficult conversations about privilege – and to show meaningful attitude and behavior shifts as a result – remains to be tested.”
“The emotion most closely linked to a focus on other-provided benefits is gratitude, but this focus had a positive impact in our study even when the conscious experience of gratitude was no higher on average than it was in our comparison conditions. This raises the question of what specific mechanism is helping to reduce men’s sense of threat in response to salient gender-related privilege. We suspect that it may center on the story people are telling themselves about other-provided benefits: ‘Somebody did something nice for me, so I must have value.’”
The paper, “Gratitude Reduces the Adverse Impact of Salient Male Privilege on Men’s Well-Being”, was authored by Christopher T. Burris and Connery Knox.