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
This wasn’t terribly surprising. When Streep was asked, last year, in the course of promoting her extremely feminist film Suffragette, whether she is herself a feminist, the actor replied that, no, she isn’t. Instead: “I am a humanist,” she said. “I am for nice, easy balance.”
Women in their 20s are told they're too young to settle down. Then, seemingly overnight, they start hearing they're spinsters. What gives?
Women in their 20s are told they're too young to settle down. Then, seemingly overnight, they start hearing they're spinsters. What gives?
Heterosexual women today, in certain milieus, find themselves placed into one of two categories: too young to settle down, and too old to find a man. There is a window of opportunity to get married, but it is ephemeral almost to the point of non-existence. It falls at a different age according to region, or the idiosyncratic biases of one's circle, but hovers around 27. "Too young" refers not to teen marriage, but to any commitment entered into by a grown woman deemed still a child by those around her.
Here's how it works: A young woman hears from friends and family that she needs to focus on her career or education, not some guy. She is warned of certain dangers: unsolicited male attention; unintended pregnancy, as if intended pregnancy were also a thing; and the desire hardwired into all straight men to turn their girlfriends into 1950s housewives. To entertain the possibility of it being difficult to find a husband, to even utter the expression "find a husband," is to regress to another era. And this advice is incredibly appealing, a rejection of the quaint notion that female heterosexuality is the desire not for men, but for a white picket fence.
The number of American teens who excel at advanced math has surged. Why?
On a sultry evening last July, a tall, soft-spoken 17-year-old named David Stoner and nearly 600 other math whizzes from all over the world sat huddled in small groups around wicker bistro tables, talking in low voices and obsessively refreshing the browsers on their laptops. The air in the cavernous lobby of the Lotus Hotel Pang Suan Kaew in Chiang Mai, Thailand, was humid, recalls Stoner, whose light South Carolina accent warms his carefully chosen words. The tension in the room made it seem especially heavy, like the atmosphere at a high-stakes poker tournament.
Stoner and five teammates were representing the United States in the 56th International Mathematical Olympiad. They figured they’d done pretty well over the two days of competition. God knows, they’d trained hard. Stoner, like his teammates, had endured a grueling regime for more than a year—practicing tricky problems over breakfast before school and taking on more problems late into the evening after he completed the homework for his college-level math classes. Sometimes, he sketched out proofs on the large dry-erase board his dad had installed in his bedroom. Most nights, he put himself to sleep reading books like New Problems in Euclidean Geometry and An Introduction to Diophantine Equations.
And why stopping it requires that governments get out of the way
As it stands, the international coalition is far from winning the information war against the Islamic State. Its air strikes may be squeezing the group in Iraq and Syria and killing many of its leaders, but that has not halted the self-proclaimed caliphate’s ideological momentum. Indeed, at the end of 2015, it was estimated that the number of foreigners travelling to join militant groups in Iraq and Syria—predominantly the Islamic State—had more than doubled in the course of just 18 months. What’s more, while these figures may be striking, sheer numbers are less important than intent when it comes to the organization’s actual threat to the world. As we have already seen, it takes a very small number of people to unleash great terror, whether in Iraq, Syria, or elsewhere.
Today’s empires are born on the web, and exert tremendous power in the material world.
Mark Zuckerberg hasn’t had the best week.
First, Facebook’s Free Basics platform was effectively banned in India. Then, a high-profile member of Facebook’s board of directors, the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, sounded off about the decision to his nearly half-a-million Twitter followers with a stunning comment.
“Anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades,” Andreessen wrote. “Why stop now?”
After that, the Internet went nuts.
Andreessen deleted his tweet, apologized, and underscored that he is “100 percent opposed to colonialism” and “100 percent in favor of independence and freedom.” Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, followed up with his own Facebook post to say Andreessen’s comment was “deeply upsetting” to him, and not representative of the way he thinks “at all.”
Einstein’s gravitational waves rest on a genuinely radical idea.
After decades of anticipation, we have directly detected gravitational waves—ripples in spacetime traveling at the speed of light through the universe. Scientists at LIGO (the Laser Interferometic Gravitational-wave Observatory) have announced that they have measured waves coming from the inspiral of two massive black holes, providing a spectacular confirmation of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, whose hundredth anniversary was celebrated just last year.
Finding gravitational waves indicates that Einstein was (once again) right, and opens a new window onto energetic events occurring around the universe. But there’s a deeper lesson, as well: a reminder of the central importance of locality, an idea that underlies much of modern physics.
Across China, where new developments are keeping pace with the rapidly growing economy, reports continue to surface so-called "nail houses."
Across China, where new developments are keeping pace with the rapidly growing economy, reports continue to surface of so-called "nail houses." These properties, standing alone amid the ruins of other buildings, belong to owners who have stood their ground and resisted demolition. Defiant property owners say the compensation being offered is too low. Some of them have remained in their homes for years as their court cases drag on and new construction continues all around them. A few homeowners have won their fights, but most have lost. Meanwhile, these nail houses have become powerful symbols of resistance against the world's fastest-growing major economy.
How those three little words sound around the world
I love saying “I love you.” I’ll say “love ya” to my parents when I’m about to get off the phone with them, and “love you!!” to my wife as she’s heading out the door for work (“love you???” on Gchat means I’ve gotten myself into trouble with her and I’m searching for a way out). I tell my son I love him, and he doesn’t even get it—he’s an infant. I’ve been known to proclaim that I love sushi and football and Benjamin Franklin (I mean, how could you not love Ben?).
Many people in this world would find my behavior rather strange. That’s because Americans are exceptionally promiscuous when it comes to professing their love. In the United States, “I love you” is at once exalted and devalued. It can mean everything ... or nothing at all. This is not universally the case.
Most people know how to help someone with a cut or a scrape. But what about a panic attack?
Here’s a thought experiment: You’re walking down the street with a friend when your companion falls and gashes her leg on the concrete. It’s bleeding; she’s in pain. It’s clear she’s going to need stitches. What do you do?
This one isn’t exactly a head-scratcher. You'd probably attempt to offer some sort of first-aid assistance until the bleeding stopped, or until she could get to medical help. Maybe you happen to have a Band-Aid on you, or a tissue to help her clean the wound, or a water bottle she can use to rinse it off. Maybe you pick her up and help her hobble towards transportation, or take her where she needs to go.
Here’s a harder one: What if, instead of an injured leg, that same friend has a panic attack?
The bureau successfully played the long game in both cases.
The story of law enforcement in the Oregon standoff is one of patience.
On the most obvious level, that was reflected in the 41 days that armed militia members occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns. It took 25 days before the FBI and state police moved to arrest several leaders of the occupation and to barricade the refuge. It took another 15 days before the last of the final occupiers walked out, Thursday morning Oregon time.
Each of those cases involved patience as well: Officers massed on Highway 395 didn’t shoot LaVoy Finicum when he tried to ram past a barricade, nearly striking an FBI agent, though when he reached for a gun in his pocket they finally fired. Meanwhile, despite increasingly hysterical behavior from David Fry, the final occupier, officers waited him out until he emerged peacefully.