Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Women Happy At Home, Says Famous Psychologist

Last July, Roy Baumeister (of ego depletion C+C fame) gave an invited address to the American Psychological Association titled, "Is There Anything Good About Men?" His answer is "Yes": men are good for making culture and for getting chewed up and spit out by it.

There are some interesting things in this talk. Baumeister points out that on lots of scales, men do both better and worse than women: there are more men at the top of power structures, but also more men in prison. There are more men with really high IQs but also more men with really low ones.

Some of the conclusions, though, are troubling. And some of the elements of the argument seem forced. The main claims are 1) that the difference between the sexes has to do not with abilities but with motivation, and 2) that men are motivated to take risks, aim high, and engage with the world at large -- often only to fail -- while women are motivated to be mostly pleasant and nice and to engage with small groups. Men are good for creating culture, society, and anything on a grand scale, and are also useful in that they are relatively expendable.

Baumeister starts by pointing out that the variety of male achievement is an important and unavoidable aspect of human reproduction. Women can't have lots of children, but by playing it safe they can have a few. Men can maybe have lots and lots if they are successful, or may have none if they're failures. Our ancestors, then, were women who played it safe and men who took risks.

Then, too, studies show that women prefer small groups to large ones in lots of ways.

So "perhaps nature designed women to seek to be lovable, whereas men were designed to strive, mostly unsuccessfully, for greatness." Men are good for risk-taking ventures, like discovering continents, and large-scale projects, like creating art and medicine. Women can do these things too, but they're not, in the nature of things, motivated to do them.

Arguments about nature's design can't fail to be structured in a funny way, since the link between evidence and conclusion is always so weird. Here we have a speculative claim about historical development of humans, together with facts about how actual men and women behave. It's the fit, presumably, that is supposed to make the argument convincing.

Of course, one always worries that the facts about actual people can't show anything about nature's design, since people are the way they are for so many reasons. One place Baumeister tries to respond to such a doubt is in his discussion about music.

In music, he says, both women and men are proficient, but only men are motivated to create and improvise. That this is nature, not culture, he says, is shown by the fact that in the 19th-century, wealthy women played instruments but created nothing, while at the same time powerless black men with no resources created blues and then jazz.

It's just a small example, and who knows what the answer is. But there seem to me to be a lot of other explanations. It was greatly in these women's interest to be passive. And plenty of women seem to be creating music now. Indeed, the incredible surge of women's involvement in the public domain over the last forty or so years seems to suggest more a pent-up desire to create, and be in public life, than a lack of desire.

In the 19th century, wealthy women were discouraged from creative production not by lack of resources but by an entire social structure. Trollope's late 19th-century novels are filled with women who bristle at their narrow life roles, and long to make a mark on the wider world. They find it impossible, because they have no practical or social independence, and because their roles are so narrowly defined. And Trollope was a conservative, against women's rights. So it's not like he was trying to make a point.

In my post about the Bonobo controversy, I said that questions about nature's design ought to receive the suspicious reply: Who wants to know? Don't go too fast with conclusions about men and women's motivation. Because the next step -- though Baumeister is careful not to make it -- is obviously: Chill out gals, if you're not getting anywhere, it's not our fault. You're probably not really trying.


Captain Colossal said...

That paper made me want to put a bullet through my head.

Your point is exactly why I distrust evolutionary biology. He takes some studies about how men are and how women are and then from that comes up with an explanation of why, if those facts were constant over time, they would result in a world that looks a lot like ours.

Like him, I distrust the idea of a ur-historical overthrow of the matriarchy, but that doesn't mean that his story is more accurate. It simply means that we don't know.

The "why didn't middle class girls invent jazz?" example is pretty good; I also liked the "why didn't women do a better job with the whole 'giving birth' thing?" discussion. Until relatively recently, weren't we, men and women alike, a little hazy on a lot of health related topics? It's not like men had cleared up all the other diseases before they were finally allowed in to fix that part of the process. As far as I know.

Finally, I find the idea that he himself finds women more lovable than men loathsome. I don't even know what that means.

I do, however, appreciate the thought that we demonstrate more aggression in precisely the social spheres that we take seriously.

Daniel said...

I can't even believe how stupid the men and women and music stuff is. This guy is famou?

Noko Marie said...

CC, I am also annoyed by the whole lovable women business. I remember as a kid reading James Thurber and being struck by the double-edgedness of it. Thurber goes on and on about how much wiser and more sensible women are, but you can tell he'd take a wise-ass guy over a sensible female 10 times out of 10.

Daniel, yes, I think he's pretty famous. He's got his own Wikipedia entry, and those don't grow on trees! (ha ha). Anyway I'm glad to hear the music story isn't really this way.

It seems to me there have been some articulate complaints in the past about this style of evolutionary argument. But the arguments don't go away. Which I figure is because in the nature of things, they confirm prejudices and common sense. And who doesn't like to have their prejudices confirmed?

Difference Blog said...

The comments seem to have covered most of my points already, but I have to say I was largely disappointed with Baumeister's speech, except for one thing which I suspect he got right, which is the idea of "trade-offs", although I think he may be barking up the wrong tree with it.

There has to be a cost to child-bearing and lactation, physically. If it were possible to have females bear children and be simultaneously as large and strong as males, I suspect there wouldn't be differentiated genders.