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
When President Obama left, I stayed on at the National Security Council in order to serve my country. I lasted eight days.
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Like most of my fellow American Muslims, I spent much of 2016 watching with consternation as Donald Trump vilified our community. Despite this––or because of it––I thought I should try to stay on the NSC staff during the Trump Administration, in order to give the new president and his aides a more nuanced view of Islam, and of America's Muslim citizens.
Meet the protesters who tricked conference attendees into waving Russian flags.
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The stunt made waves on social media, as journalists covering CPAC noticed the scramble to confiscate the insignia.
Long after research contradicts common medical practices, patients continue to demand them and physicians continue to deliver. The result is an epidemic of unnecessary and unhelpful treatments.
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That night, he thought more about it: middle-aged man, high blood pressure, stressful job, chest discomfort. The next day, he went to a local emergency department. Doctors determined that the man had not suffered a heart attack and that the electrical activity of his heart was completely normal. All signs suggested that the executive had stable angina—chest pain that occurs when the heart muscle is getting less blood-borne oxygen than it needs, often because an artery is partially blocked.
Trump is undermining America’s national security by trying to shape analysis to support his world view.
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The preconditions are present in the U.S. today. Here’s the playbook Donald Trump could use to set the country down a path toward illiberalism.
It’s 2021, and President Donald Trump will shortly be sworn in for his second term. The 45th president has visibly aged over the past four years. He rests heavily on his daughter Ivanka’s arm during his infrequent public appearances.
Fortunately for him, he did not need to campaign hard for reelection. His has been a popular presidency: Big tax cuts, big spending, and big deficits have worked their familiar expansive magic. Wages have grown strongly in the Trump years, especially for men without a college degree, even if rising inflation is beginning to bite into the gains. The president’s supporters credit his restrictive immigration policies and his TrumpWorks infrastructure program.
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“No… it’s a magic potty,” my daughter used to lament, age 3 or so, before refusing to use a public restroom stall with an automatic-flush toilet. As a small person, she was accustomed to the infrared sensor detecting erratic motion at the top of her head and violently flushing beneath her. Better, in her mind, just to delay relief than to subject herself to the magic potty’s dark dealings.
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Ellen Stofan was the only woman to testify at a congressional hearing about the future of space exploration—and the only person left out of the official tweets about the event.
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Near the end, Ellen Stofan, NASA’s chief science officer under President Barack Obama, gave Mars enthusiasts some reason for hope. Americans can expect a lunar habitat by the 2020s and humans in Mars orbit in 2032, she said.
That’s the clearest timeline on NASA’s “Journey to Mars” in some time. Many space enthusiasts were, well, enthused. But then last Friday, Stofan shared this picture: