A study finds that the sexes interpret the world differently, with men more likely to judge it in black-and-white terms
It has long been asserted--at least in by those inclined to stereotype—that women are more complex than men. But according to a new research study, women may see the world in more complex ways, as well.
In a study scheduled for publication in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, three researchers from the University of Warwick in England asked a group of men and women to categorize natural and manufactured objects as being "part of," "not part of," or "somewhat part of" a particular category. All of the object/category pairs in the study were selected because they defied easy categorization (e.g. is a tomato a fruit? Is billiards a sport? Is a computer a tool?). Nonetheless, the male subjects were far more likely to assert that the objects were completely in or out of a particular category. The women, on the other hand, were more likely to reject absolute answers in favor of the "somewhat" (or "it's not that simple") option.
Lest anyone take the results as an indication of indecision or unwillingness on the part of the women to take a stand on anything, the researchers also tested to see how confident each participant was about his or her categorization. Interestingly, the participants who were most confident in general chose "somewhat part of" as an answer less often than the others. But there was no difference between the sexes in their levels of confidence about their choices. The women were just as absolutely sure the answers were complex as the men were sure they were simple.
Granted, the study sample size was small: only 113 subjects. But still. What do we make of the possibility that men may, as a group, categorize the world in more black-and-white terms, while women see it in more shades of gray? What accounts for that difference? Dr. Zachary Estes, one of the study's authors, isn't sure.
"To speculate a bit, this sex difference is almost certainly a combination of biological predisposition and social environment," he said. "[But] whether the male tendency for absolute judgments is related to assertion, or simplicity, or anything else like that, we simply don't know yet."
In terms of socialization, it's true that our society (and, indeed, many societies) judges men in terms of their competence—which implies, or requires, clear and confident knowledge about subjects. Men are also judged in terms of their ability to command, which requires assertive judgment calls. So given the same set of ambiguous calls to make, it's not surprising that men lean toward more absolute judgments.
Having to maintain a command attitude also influences how a person pursues or processes information. As I've written elsewhere, a commander has a very different agenda and approach than, say, an "explorer." Explorers don't seek to control the world around them. They seek, instead, to understand it. As a result, explorers take the information available to them as a starting point, seeking ever more information that might clarify or expand their understanding. They also have to be comfortable with ambiguity, since the world of the explorer is one that remains largely unknown. The challenge of commanders is very different. Their task is to take whatever information is available in any given moment and winnow it down to a clear, unambiguous decision point.
How does this relate to the research of Estes and his colleagues? Because women may feel less pressure to command, and more freedom to explore, than men do—leaving them more open to seeing or accepting shades of gray.
Of course, there might also turn out to be a biological or neurological component that explains the difference, similar to the brain differences I wrote about recently between people who call themselves conservative vs. liberal. Or perhaps women are more inclined to stay a bit neutral in their judgments for social or psychological reasons. Learning to couch their opinions a bit might help women build a wider social circle or avoid harsh recriminations from bigger, stronger, and more powerful members of the opposite sex.
But whatever the roots of Estes's findings, their implications are intriguing to consider. A former boss of mine once said that he thought the real division between people's world views wasn't conservative vs. liberal. It was between people who saw the world in black-and-white terms and those who saw it, instead, in complex shades of gray.
"The more people see the world in black-and-white terms," he said, "regardless of whether they're on the right or the left, the harder it is for them to change their views on anything. There are only two options for them, and the distance to the other possible viewpoint is too far. People who see the world in shades of gray, on the other hand, can adjust their views more easily, if they get new or conflicting information, because all they have to do is shift to a slightly lighter or darker shade."
So does that mean women are more likely to alter their opinions if presented with new information? It's an interesting possibility that has implications for the boardroom as well as the voting booth.
"Successful" CEOs have traditionally been seen as strong, decisive leaders who take charge—very much the commander role. But in a fast-changing, complex and global market, adapting quickly to change and fostering creative innovation are increasingly important survival skills for companies to master. And those strengths often come more naturally to people who are more comfortable with ambiguity and who see the world, or at least CAN see the world, from multiple viewpoints, or in multiple shades of gray.
Estes says that if he conducted his research among a group of men and women in an executive boardroom, the results might show very little difference in the inclination of men and women to make absolute judgments, because "that might be precisely why [the women] are accepted into an executive role in the first place." But ironically, it might be that very difference, and that willingness to see the world in complex shades of gray, that could give women an edge in leading the companies of the future. Image: igor.gribanov/flickr
The winners of the 27th annual National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest have just been announced.
The winners of the 27th annual National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest have just been announced. Winning first prize, Anuar Patjane Floriuk of Tehuacán, Mexico, will receive an eight-day photo expedition for two to Costa Rica and the Panama Canal for a photograph of divers swimming near a humpback whale off the western coast of Mexico. Here, National Geographic has shared all of this year’s winners, gathered from four categories: Travel Portraits, Outdoor Scenes, Sense of Place, and Spontaneous Moments. Captions by the photographers.
Many psychiatrists believe that a new approach to diagnosing and treating depression—linking individual symptoms to their underlying mechanisms—is needed for research to move forward.
In his Aphorisms, Hippocrates defined melancholia, an early understanding of depression, as a state of “fears and despondencies, if they last a long time.” It was caused, he believed, by an excess of bile in the body (the word “melancholia” is ancient Greek for “black bile”).
Ever since then, doctors have struggled to create a more precise and accurate definition of the illness that still isn’t well understood. In the 1920s, the German psychiatrist Kurt Schneider argued that depression could be divided into two separate conditions, each requiring a different form of treatment: depression that resulted from changes in mood, which he called “endogenous depression,” and depression resulting from reactions to outside events, or “reactive depression.” His theory was challenged in 1926, when the British psychologist Edward Mapother argued in the British Medical Journal that there was no evidence for two distinct types of depression, and that the apparent differences between depression patients were just differences in the severity of the condition.
What would the American culture wars look like if they were less about “values” and more about Jesus?
Evangelical Christianity has long had a stranglehold on how Americans imagine public faith. Vague invocations of “religion”—whether it’s “religion vs. science” or “religious freedom”—usually really mean “conservative, Protestant, evangelical Christianity,” and this assumption inevitably frames debates about American belief. For the other three-quarters of the population—Catholics, Jews, other Protestants, Muslims, Hindus, secular Americans, Buddhists, Wiccans, etc.—this can be infuriating. For some evangelicals, it’s a sign of success, a linguistic triumph of the culture wars.
But not for Russell Moore. In 2013, the 43-year-old theologian became the head of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the political nerve center of the Southern Baptist Convention. His predecessor, Richard Land, prayed with George W. Bush, played hardball with Democrats, and helped make evangelicals a quintessentially Republican voting bloc.
Why the obsession with our kids’ happiness may be dooming them to unhappy adulthoods. A therapist and mother reports.
If there’s one thing I learned in graduate school, it’s that the poet Philip Larkin was right. (“They fuck you up, your mum and dad, / They may not mean to, but they do.”) At the time, I was a new mom with an infant son, and I’d decided to go back to school for a degree in clinical psychology. With baby on the brain and term papers to write, I couldn’t ignore the barrage of research showing how easy it is to screw up your kids. Of course, everyone knows that growing up with “Mommy Dearest” produces a very different child from one raised by, say, a loving PTA president who has milk and homemade cookies waiting after school. But in that space between Joan Crawford and June Cleaver, where most of us fall, it seemed like a lot could go wrong in the kid-raising department.
The jobs that are least vulnerable to automation tend to be held by women.
Many economists and technologists believe the world is on the brink of a new industrial revolution, in which advances in the field of artificial intelligence will obsolete human labor at an unforgiving pace. Two Oxford researchers recently analyzed the skills required for more than 700 different occupations to determine how many of them would be susceptible to automation in the near future, and the news was not good: They concluded that machines are likely to take over 47 percent of today’s jobs within a few decades.
This is a dire prediction, but one whose consequences will not fall upon society evenly. A close look at the data reveals a surprising pattern: The jobs performed primarily by women are relatively safe, while those typically performed by men are at risk.
Ecuador tried to rewrite the rules of human migration—only to recoil at the results.
LAGO AGRIO, Ecuador—Hitler was behind the wheel, racing through a blur of jungle toward Ecuador’s border with Colombia. Only when an immigration officer in green fatigues hurried out from a checkpoint, yelling, did Hitler pump the brakes. The policeman asked if we wanted our passports stamped, and all four of us in the truck—an American, a Dane, a Colombian, and an Ecuadorian—declined. With that, the official waved goodbye and we lurched onward to Colombia.
The river that marks the border between the countries is anything but an impassable boundary. Along its length are dozens of illicit crossings, and the movement of people—and problems—from one bank to the other is a fact of daily life. From a bridge, I could see, on the Colombian side, a black plume of smoke rising from an oil pipeline that FARC rebels had reportedly bombed the previous day. On the Ecuadorian side was a ghost town of ramshackle sheds that those same guerrillas were known to rent for a few hours of partying.
Exceptional nonfiction stories from 2014 that are still worth encountering today
Each year, I keep a running list of exceptional nonfiction that I encounter as I publish The Best ofJournalism, an email newsletter that I send out once or twice a week. This is my annual attempt to bring some of those stories to a wider audience. I could not read or note every worthy article that was published last calendar year and I haven't included any paywalled articles or anything published at The Atlantic. But everything that follows is worthy of wider attention and engagement.
Paul faced danger, Ani and Ray faced each other, and Frank faced some career decisions.
This is what happens when you devote two-thirds of a season to scene after scene after scene of Frank and Jordan’s Baby Problems, and Frank Shaking Guys Down, and Look How Fucked Up Ray and Ani Are, and Melancholy Singer in the Dive Bar Yet Again—and then you suddenly realize that with only a couple episodes left you haven’t offered even a rudimentary outline of the central plot.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
It’s impossible to “solve” the Iranian nuclear threat. This agreement is the next best thing.
Having carefully reviewed the lengthy and complex agreement negotiated by the United States and its international partners with Iran, I have reached the following conclusion: If I were a member of Congress, I would vote yes on the deal. Here are nine reasons why.
1. No one has identified a better feasible alternative. Before negotiations halted its nuclear advance, Iran had marched relentlessly down the field from 10 years away from a bomb to two months from that goal line. In response, the United States and its partners imposed a series of sanctions that have had a significant impact on Iran’s economy, driving it to negotiate. That strategy worked, and resulted in a deal. In the absence of this agreement, the most likely outcome would be that the parties resume doing what they were doing before the freeze began: Iran installing more centrifuges, accumulating a larger stockpile of bomb-usable material, shrinking the time required to build a bomb; the U.S. resuming an effort to impose more severe sanctions on Iran. Alternatively, Israel or the United States could conduct military strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities, setting back the Iranian program by two years, or perhaps even three. But that option risks wider war in the Middle East, an Iran even more determined to acquire a bomb, and the collapse of consensus among American allies.