Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Men and Women: Different Planets or Not? Part 2

Picking up (finally!) from my last post, let’s recap: Bobbi Carothers and Harry Reis recently published a paper that got wide attention, with the headlines mostly suggesting that men and women are pretty much the same in relationships. They used some very sophisticated research strategies to examine many commonly assumed differences between men and women, finding that many of these differences do exist but that they are not so much differences in type as degree. (Please see the last post for more details on the study and it’s basic meaning.) As I said before, for many dimensions, the differences do not amount to different planets but, more, different zip codes.

The work done by Carothers and Reis is very good, and the main theme people took from it is correct: We often over-assume differences between men and women in a number of areas where there is actually very little difference—perhaps some consistent but small, average differences. That means you’d misunderstand scads of people (technical term for big lots) if you just went with the stereotype. The fact that people over-believe in these differences is something to think seriously about.

Here’s a practical suggestion, especially if you have not been with and known your partner well, for a long time: If you make too strong an assumption about your partner’s interests or tendencies based on knowing his or her gender, you may be wrong a good deal of the time. Furthermore, your expectations can become part of a negative pattern that locks your partner into a stereotype rather than letting him or her be who they truly are around you. It’s far better to pay attention to who your partner actually is than to make assumptions based on gender. Talk, listen, and notice what he or she cares about or how he or she behaves. See the person who is really there, not just a stereotype.

Having made this important point, I am now going to remark about the evidence for some stereotypes when it comes to sex differences. I do not mean to argue for any stereotypes where they are unhelpful or wrong, but I do want to suggest that some writers overplayed the meaning of the findings from the study by Carothers and Reis. I will give two examples of where the there is good evidence of something stereotypical going on, based on their work. Then, in the next post, I will give an important example from research in our lab.

Carothers and Reis noted that there were clear differences in type, not just degree, when it came to activities people liked. I mentioned this last time but I’ll repeat and add to the list of activities where males and females differed in their reports of what they like to do: playing video games, golf, scrapbooking, interest in cosmetics, tuning into talk shows, watching boxing, talking on the phone, and so forth. If you take an average couple with two partners who have been together over many years (or plan to be) some of these types of sex differences can become important. In most relationships, two partners share important interests and activities; but in other relationships, couples struggles to find interests that overlap. If a male and female partner were quite stereotypical in line with the findings just noted, such a couple might struggle to find shared interests. So, while men and women may be similar in desire for intimacy, there are types of activities where men and women are less likely to have overlapping interests in ways that are both stereotypical and problematic for some couples. Of course, even for couples with few overlapping interests, some couples will have one interest or two that does overlap from which the two partners can derive a lot of connection. Anyway, it not far-fetched to see how some of these types of differences support some of the widely held beliefs about how different men and women can be in marriage.

Carothers and Reis also found more differences between men and women in a couple of areas where people expect sex differences about, well, sex. In the category of activities noted above, where differences where more of type than merely degree, watching pornography was one of the activities wherein men and women were not alike. Obviously, men are far more likely to report having watched or regularly using pornography. Plenty of studies confirm this—as if you needed any convincing. Pretty different planets, there. In fact, you could say that men are more prone than women to explore different planets in this regard. And that point is supported by the next point, as well.

Carothers and Reis also found a more subtle, but important difference related to sexual behavior. They analyzed the degree to which men and women reported that various behaviors would appeal to them: having sex without love, having sex with more than one partner, or having sex with a stranger. While they found men and women differed, here like other areas, more in degree than type, but the degree of difference was pretty large and what you’d expect. Similarly, they looked at those who rated themselves higher on things like expecting to have more sexual partners in the coming years or fantasizing about being with someone other than one’s partner or comfort with casual sex without emotional closeness. Again, there was substantial evidence of differences between men and women, in fact, some of the evidence here suggested a difference in type as well as degree. Half or more of the men and most of the women scored low on such items, but if someone scored higher, you’d do well to bet it was a man—if you were a betting person. (Seems like they should have casinos where people could place bets on social science study findings! That would be amazing, right?) In other words, Carothers and Reis found evidence that those who had the most positive attitudes about casual sex and uncommitted sex were most consistently likely to be men. 

Again, if you think about the news the study received, it sounded from headlines like there was just not much difference between men and women, but that’s not really the case. In some areas where people tend to believe the strongest stereotypes, there actually were substantial differences found that fit what most people believe. Yes, men and women were more similar in type on a host of dimensions, but some differences found that were relatively clear fit what most people would guess when it comes to men and women.

I’ve tried to convey just how complex the analyses are that were conducted by Carothers and Reis. Even where some of the differences were strongly similar to stereotypes about sex, they do find that differences are more often a matter of degree than type. So even where there may not be evidence for different planets, there is something stereotypical going on regarding some types of sexual behavior. As Carothers and Reis note, those differences are consistent with a lot of what we know about differences that are based, fundamentally, in biology. As I often have said, you can disregard sex differences if you want, but the fact that females can become pregnant and males cannot (along with everything that relates to this fact) drives a lot of differences in how men and women behave when it comes to love, sex, and commitment. Men and women may be more similar, psychologically, than many would like to believe, but there are also differences that consistently matter.

That’s all pretty complex but interesting to think about. Let’s get more practical for a moment. Here’s my advice for you. Don’t over-assume things to be true based on someone’s gender. It is especially important to watch out for doing this in your relationship with your partner as well as in work relationships, where you can also put people boxes that do not fit and are not fair. On the other hand, I think it’s important to realize the limitations of how the important study by Carothers and Reis was discussed in the media. They actually found some pretty strong differences between men and women that are quite consistent with stereotypes, but that sure did not come across in any of the headlines. These types of differences may not represent living on different planets, but frustrations related to them can sure send some people into orbit.