Monday, July 21, 2008

"Women Are Irrational!"

When I learned as a young person that it used to be considered common sense to think that women were less rational than men, I was surprised.

I mean, aren't guys the ones known for getting into impulsive barroom fights, raping women, and buying expensive consumer electronics?

Aren't women known as the planners and the plodders of life? The ones who make grocery lists, nag people to eat their vegetables, and make "safe" but weak investment choices?

OK, I am overstating, but you know what I mean.

I got thinking about this recently when the Times did that series on love in Iraq, or whatever it was, and they quoted some man talking about how the reason one had to keep women indoors was that they were so irrational, they could be talked into anything. Let them out of the house, and some guy will sweet-talk them into having sex, and that'll be the end of it.

Leaving aside all the other questions this raises, I had to ask myself, Well, is this true? Are women are more swayed by emotions they haven't reflected on?

And I replied to myself, "Hmph! Swayed by emotions when it comes to sex? It's guys who are always saying they couldn't help themselves; it's guys who respond to the simplest visual cues; it's guys who actually make less rational decisions when there are pretty girls around (at least if this somewhat wacky study is true).

I explained my ruminations to a wise friend, who said something like, Well, maybe what it is is that women are more likely to change their minds about things in response to what is immediately in front of them, and men are more likely to say constant to abstractions despite conditions on the ground.

I think this may be right. But I don't think it shows women are more irrational. I mean, depending on your goals, sometimes it's means-end rational to change your strategy, or focus on the immediate, and sometimes it's not.

For example, people talk about moral "impartiality." The moral point of view should treat all persons the same.

But we also tend to think parents should take special care of their own children, and are right to lavish extra care on them.

It's easy to see how everyone might be best off when parents lavish extra care on their own children, which means these don't really conflict.

Focusing on the immediate, and not being impartial, can nonetheless be "rational" in the larger sense.

So: I don't think the difference in focus shows women to be less rational.

It is true that a kind of impulsivity can sometimes be irrational, and I think that's why I always thought it was more of a guy thing, especially in the sex and violence realm.

Then I thought, Aha! That's why people always thought of men as more rational: men are rational with particular exceptions. Exceptions they treat as irrationality. Whereas it's harder to carve out the parts of women's behavior that seem impulsive, calculating, emotive, etc. It's all kind of a mix.

And then I had a smaller kind of Aha when I thought, "Oh, and that's why sex was probably considered this strange dark force instead of just a normal part of life."

Maybe you already understood all of this. But it cleared up some things for me.

Speaking of non-impulsivity, here's a fun fact: according to Wikipedia, "a 'darcy' is a unit of permeability." OK it's not named after that Darcy but after another Darcy, but still, wouldn't it have been cuter and equally efficient if they'd made the darcy a unit of "impermeability" rather than permeability?

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