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
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
The drug modafinil was recently found to enhance cognition in healthy people. Should you take it to get a raise?
If you could take a pill that will make you better at your job, with few or no negative consequences, would you do it?
In a meta-analysis recently published in European Neuropsychopharmacology, researchers from the University of Oxford and Harvard Medical School concluded that a drug called modafinil, which is typically used to treat sleep disorders, is a cognitive enhancer. Essentially, it can help normal people think better.
Out of all cognitive processes, modafinil was found to improve decision-making and planning the most in the 24 studies the authors reviewed. Some of the studies also showed gains in flexible thinking, combining information, or coping with novelty. The drug didn’t seem to influence creativity either way.
All of the downsides of being a subordinate, combined with all of the downsides of having to tell people to do things they don't want to do.
When researchers try to determine the types of workers who are most prone to depression, the focus is usually on the misery of those at the bottomof a company’s hierarchy—the presumed stressors being the menial duties they're tasked with and their lack of say in defining the scope of their jobs.
But it turns out that middle managers have it worse. In a new study from researchers at Columbia University, of nearly 22,000 full-time workers (from a dataset from the National Epidemiological Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions), they saw that 18 percent of supervisors and managers reported symptoms of depression. For blue-collar workers, that figure was 12 percent, and for owners and executives, it was only 11 percent.
Four and a half years of violent conflict have destroyed entire regions of Syria. Caught in the middle of all this horror are the children of Syria, relying on parents who have lost control of their own lives and are now being forced to make difficult choices in desperate circumstances.
Four and a half years of violent conflict have destroyed entire regions of Syria. Neighborhoods have been smashed by shelling and government barrel bombs, and towns have been seized by rebels and ISIS militants, then retaken by government troops, killing hundreds of thousands and injuring even more. The United Nations now estimates that more than 4 million Syrians have become refugees, forced to flee to neighboring countries or Europe. Caught in the middle of all this horror are the children of Syria, relying on parents who have lost control of their own lives and are now being forced to make difficult choices in desperate circumstances. Though many families remain in Syria’s war zones, thousands of others are taking dangerous measures to escape, evading militias, government forces, border guards, predatory traffickers, and more, as they struggle to reach safety far from home.
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.
A new study shows that the field suffers from a reproducibility problem, but the extent of the issue is still hard to nail down.
No one is entirely clear on how Brian Nosek pulled it off, including Nosek himself. Over the last three years, the psychologist from the University of Virginia persuaded some 270 of his peers to channel their free time into repeating 100 published psychological experiments to see if they could get the same results a second time around. There would be no glory, no empirical eurekas, no breaking of fresh ground. Instead, this initiative—the Reproducibility Project—would be the first big systematic attempt to answer questions that have been vexing psychologists for years, if not decades. What proportion of results in their field are reliable?
Yanis Varoufakis on Grexit, the media, and economics
When Yanis Varoufakis was elected to parliament and then named as Greek finance minister in January, he embarked on an extraordinary seven months of negotiations with the country’s creditors and its European partners.
On July 6, Greek voters backed his hardline stance in a referendum, with a resounding 62 percent voting No to the European Union’s ultimatum. On that night, he resigned, after Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, fearful of an ugly exit from the euro zone, decided to go against the popular verdict. Since then, the governing party, Syriza, has splintered and a snap election has been called. Varoufakis remains a member of parliament and a prominent voice in Greek and European politics.
It is not too late to strengthen the Iran deal, a prominent critic says.
It appears likely, as of this writing, that Barack Obama will be victorious in his fight to implement the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by his secretary of state, John Kerry. Republicans in Congress don’t appear to have the votes necessary to void the agreement, and Benjamin Netanyahu’s campaign to subvert Obama may be remembered as one of the more counterproductive and shortsighted acts of an Israeli prime minister since the rebirth of the Jewish state 67 years ago.
Things could change, of course, and the Iranian regime, which is populated in good part by extremists, fundamentalist theocrats, and supporters of terrorism, could do something monumentally stupid in the coming weeks that could force on-the-fence Democrats to side with their Republican adversaries (remember the Café Milano fiasco, anyone?). But, generally speaking, the Obama administration, and its European allies, seem to have a clearer path to implementation than they had at the beginning of the month.
But no tale of posthumous success is quite as spectacular as that of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, the “cosmic horror” writer who died in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1937 at the age of 46. The circumstances of Lovecraft’s final years were as bleak as anyone’s. He ate expired canned food and wrote to a friend, “I was never closer to the bread-line.” He never saw his stories collectively published in book form, and, before succumbing to intestinal cancer, he wrote, “I have no illusions concerning the precarious status of my tales, and do not expect to become a serious competitor of my favorite weird authors.” Among the last words the author uttered were, “Sometimes the pain is unbearable.” His obituary in the Providence Evening Bulletin was “full of errors large and small,” according to his biographer.
What if restrictions on Western food are more than just a post-imperial temper tantrum?
One face of Vladimir Putin's brave new Russia is a man called Nikolai.
We don't know his last name, but we know he lives in Vladivostok. And we know that after having a few drinks on the evening of August 16, he called the cops to rat on his neighbors for cooking illegally imported goose meat.
“I served in the army and I understand the situation like this: We have our superiors and they give orders that we must carry out, meaning there is the law and we must obey it,” Nikolai said, according to Russian media reports.
Another face of the brave new Russia is Andrei Polyakov, leader of St. Petersburg’s Cossack community. Polyakov recently said he would regularly send his men, armed with a mobile crematorium, to raid storessuspected of selling contraband foreign food. The food snitches and food vigilantes are taking their cues from the top, of course.