Why Do Women See the World in Shades of Gray?

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