How Gender-Role Salience Influences Attitude Strength and Persuasive Message Processing

When women are exposed to female gender role information, the strength of their attitudes is reduced and they are more susceptible to persuasion. However, when men and women are exposed to male gender role information, they process messages more thoughtfully.


There are common stereotypes that women are “wavering,” “naïve,” and “easily influenced,” whereas men are “intelligent,” “rational,” “consistent,” and “stubborn.” Such traits are part of broader generalizations that women are more susceptible to persuasion than men. Although such stereotypes are widespread, research about gender differences in persuadability has produced conflicting results. In order to make sense of these unclear research findings, scholars have conducted meta-analyses of various studies on the topic of persuadability, finding that women may appear more susceptible to persuasion than men—although the extent of these effects remains ambiguous.

In addition, there is a growing field of research that looks at how being exposed to information about a certain social group—also known as “priming”—can affect the thoughts and behaviors of the people who are “primed.” Studies show that this effect can occur even when people are primed with information about a social category that they don’t belong to. For instance, university students who are primed with stereotypes of professors do better on general knowledge tests than university students primed with stereotypes of “cleaning ladies.”

This study investigates whether being primed with information about female and male gender roles affects how susceptible people are to persuasion with regard to their attitudes on public transportation discounts, changes in university curricula, and capital punishment within the context of three experiments performed on women and men in the US Midwest.


When women were exposed to priming female gender role information (including words such as “she,” “skirt,” “lipstick,” “flower,” “jewerly”), the strength of their self-reported attitude-relevant knowledge, certainty, and importance was reduced and ambivalence toward a topic was increased. Furthermore, women primed with the female gender role were more susceptible to persuasive arguments on capital punishment, and demonstrated less differentiation between strong and weak arguments, indicating the stereotype of female persuadability reduced their cognitive ability to distinguish among these arguments. However, when women and men were exposed to male gender role information, they processed messages more thoughtfully and changed their attitudes more in response to a strong argument about capital punishment compared to a weak one.

  • Exposure to information about female and male gender roles affected women and men similarly in that the male gender role information led people to process messages thoughtfully, whereas the female gender role information led people to process messages superficially.
    • Study 1 revealed that when the female gender role was made salient, women demonstrated weaker attitudes, which tended to be more susceptible to change.
    • Study 2 found that reminders of the female role led women to demonstrate reduced cognitive processing of persuasive messages.
    • In Study 3, women and men responded to gender-role salience with assimiliative behavior: female gender role primes caused both women and men to process persuasive messages less carefully, and male gender role primes led both women and men to process messages thoughtfully.

These results have important implications for daily life, where it is difficult to eliminate reminders about gender roles. The study suggests that women and men should be vigilant about carefully processing the information they receive, so as not to be unintentionally susceptible to persuasion. The authors recommend researchers be wary of inadvertent gender salience in the research context, as reminders of any social identity, role, or category stereotypically associated with high or low levels of thoughtfulness or persuadability may automatically influence cognitive processing and attitude strength.


In this study, researchers conducted three experiments to assess the impact of receiving gender role information on the ability of women and men to be persuaded in their attitudes.

In the first study, they asked 50 college-aged women from the Midwestern United States to participate in a “vigilance task,” during which they were asked to stare at a crosshair that appeared on a screen and to use keyboard responses to identify whether a “flash” appeared on the right or left of the crosshair. Based on random assignment, the “flashes” were words that conveyed either female gender role information, such as “she” and “skirt,” or gender-neutral information, such as “carpet” and “glue.” This process is referred to as unconscious priming, as the words were shown for 80 ms followed by a masking image shown for 80 ms. The specific words that appeared for each participant were randomly sampled from a standard list used for the entire experiment. Immediately after priming, participants’ attitudes toward two campus issues – transit authority discounts for university students and changes to the university’s core curriculum – were assessed. They were also asked to rate the strength of these attitudes, based on how knowledgeable they considered themselves to be on each issue (attitude-relevant knowledge), how certain they were about their opinions on each issue (attitude certainty), how important each issue was to them (attitude importance), and how conflicted they felt about each issue (attitude ambivalence) on a 5-point Likert scale. At the end of this trial, participants were asked a series of “suspicion check” questions to verify whether or not they had guessed the true intention of the experiments. (No participants guessed the study’s hypothesis or purpose.)

In the second study, 104 female adults from a large city in the Midwestern United States were recruited from public locations such as restaurants, bowling alleys, and fast food courts. They were first assessed on their existing attitudes towards the death penalty on a 7-point scale (strongly opposed to strongly in favor). These questions were embedded in a series of other questions they were asked about their opinions towards tax cuts, immigration, free trade, etc. In order to “prime” the participants, the researchers asked them to unscramble a series of words to form a coherent sentence. Based on random assignment, the sentences either contained information related to the female gender role, such as “her woman lipstick kept the in purse her,” or were gender neutral, such as “banana breakfast had pancakes for they.” Participants were then given strongly and weakly persuasive arguments about the death penalty, and asked to rate how strongly persuasive the arguments were on a 5-point scale. (A suspicion check was also administered, and none of the participants guessed the intention of the study.)

In the third study, 185 women and men, recruited from the psychology subject pool at a Southeastern Hispanic-serving institution and who were either in favor of the death penalty or neutral to it, were randomly given information that either was gender-neutral or primed them about the female gender role or the male gender role. Participants first reported their attitudes toward a variety of social and political issues, including their attitudes toward capital punishment, on a 7-point scale. As in the previous study, participants were then shown weak and strong arguments for the death penalty and asked to assess the strength of the arguments and their attitude toward capital punishment.

One limitation of the study is that it focused on participant opinions relating to the specific issue of the death penalty. If the results were to be more broadly generalized, the experiments should also be replicated using other gender-neutral issues.

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