The following was written by Christopher Kilmartin, PhD, Professor Emeritus, author, stand-up comedian, actor, playwright, consultant and professional psychologist. His major scholarly work is The Masculine Self (5th edition Sloan, 2015, now co-authored by Andrew Smiler). He has also co-authored Men’s Violence Against Women: Theory, Research, and Activism, Overcoming Masculine Depression: The Pain behind the Mask: and Sexual Assault in Context: Teaching College Men about Gender, a manual based on his consultation experiences.
This is the fourth in a series of essays in which I explore the myths about women and men that are sold to us by various cultural forces. Many widely accepted ideas about the nature and character of men and women turn out to be untrue once cast under the spotlight of careful research.
In the last essay, I gave one reason for the widely held but incorrect assumptions that men are all alike, women are all alike, and that men and women are fundamentally different from one another (Men are from Mars; Women are from Venus), namely that people often mistake social performance for personality (the fundamental attribution error).
There is another explanation why is it widely believed that men and women have little in common and that each sex is a monolithic group. Social psychologists call it confirmation bias. It is often said that “seeing is believing” but we also know that believing is seeing.
Let’s start with a (somewhat) non-gendered example. It might surprise you to know that among college students who drink, most do so moderately and responsibly. Why do people believe that college students are a bunch of drunks? If you, like me, live in a town with a college, there are probably student houses in your neighborhood, and some of them host parties when it is obvious to everyone in the area that there are some very drunk people there. If we believe that college students are a bunch of binge drinkers, we probably don’t know that the loudest, most obnoxious drunks are in the minority, or that the other house down the street either doesn’t throw parties or that it has tamer ones.
Even college students who drink moderately and responsibly think that they are in the minority, when in fact they are in the majority. Why this error? Ask yourself this: if I go to a party whom am I going to notice, remember, and talk about the next day? Is this the conversation you’re likely to have?
“Did you notice Bill last night? He had three beers over the course of four hours and engaged in polite conversation in the kitchen.”
Probably not. You’re much more likely to say, “How about Tony? He had six beer bongs in a row and threw up all over himself.”
Believing is seeing because you have to pay much closer attention to notice what people are not doing than to the behaviors that are the most obvious.
Here’s the gendered example: Do most men go through a “mid-life crisis?” Actually not. Those of us who are mid-life know that this stage of life comes with its challenges, but most men manage those challenges without anything that resembles a crisis. But again, who are you going to talk about? Uncle Jack, who has a great relationship with his wife of 30 years and loves his job, or Uncle Pete, who quit his job at age 45, got divorced, bought a candy apple red Corvette, started dating a younger woman, and broke his leg while glacier skiing?
The myth of the male mid-life crisis was popularized by two bestselling books in the 1970s, but careful research indicates that crises at this age are non-normative events. Sure, some men go through them, just like some college students are big drunks, but most people handle their lives in very stable ways.
So the next time you see a behavior, gendered or otherwise, that fits the Mars and Venus stereotype, ask yourself if there might be some countervailing evidence that you’re missing. If you notice it, you will avoid the trap of believing is seeing.
Karetta Hubbard and Lynne Revo-Cohen, co-founders of NewPoint Strategies provide Next Generation consulting, classroom and on-line digital learning solutions in High Risk EEO issues including diversity/inclusion/unconscious bias, harassment and assault prevention. TRAINING. EMPOWING. EDUCATING. Creating SAFE SPACES at Work