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.
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.
My last story challenged the widely held 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). But the evidence is overwhelming that there is great variation in the experiences, personalities, and behaviors of men, as there is in women, and that men-as-a-group are really not all that different from women-as-a-group.
So then we must ask the question: why is it widely believed that men and women have little in common and that each sex is a monolithic group? There are several explanations; here is one.
During my three decades as a college psychology professor, I wrote this “formula” on the board every class:
B = f (P x S)
Behavior (B) is a function of the characteristics of the person (P) in interaction with the situation (S). We are very aware of situational pressure on our own behavior. But to understand the effects of this pressure on others, we need to make an effort to guess at what the other person is experiencing. People confuse situation for person so often that this mistake is termed the fundamental attribution error.
Let’s start with a non-gendered example. Imagine yourself sitting in an audience of 100 people listening to an expert give a presentation on an interesting topic. Unless the expert asks for questions from the audience, I’m guessing that you are listening quietly. But I would also bet the house that if we talked with the friends and families of each person in that 100, many would not describe them as “quiet people.”
So if you’re not a quiet person, why are you being quiet in that moment? It is because you are following an unstated convention that one does not interrupt a presenter. Or put another way, it’s because you are responding to the social pressure of the moment (S) and your behavior has nearly nothing to do with the kind of person you are (P).
Social pressure is easy to understand when you are in a situation where 100 people are all doing the same thing, but when you are standing outside of the situation and the group is smaller, it’s much easier to mis-attribute the behavior as being a product of the kind of people you are observing.
Here’s the gendered example: as in many gyms, the one I attend has televisions above the treadmills and exercise bicycles (These are present to distract you from your pain.) One Sunday afternoon, I was on the treadmill and a football game was on the television. A man whom I had never met comes over, looks up at the game, turns to me and says, “How ‘bout them Eagles? Think they got a chance this year?”
I like sports but I’m not big on talking about sports; I find most of it boring and would prefer to just watch. If I responded based on my personality (P), I might have said, “I don’t like to talk about sports; go away.” But that’s not what I said, because even though I don’t like sports banter, I know how to do it and it’s generally harmless. So I said, “You’re damn right they got a chance….Defense wins games.” And he responds with, “No, defense wins championships!” at which point he walks away (perhaps thinking that he has just added to the sum total of human knowledge). My behavior was much more influenced by the power of the situation (S) than the kind of person I am. What about his actions? Who knows? Maybe he loves talking about sports, or maybe he was just following a social convention.
If you had observed this interaction, you might have thought, “typical guys” or “guys, they’re all alike; all they want to talk about is sports.” And in some ways, I am a typical guy. But there are also ways in which I am decidedly atypical. I am a gender psychologist. Probably 90% or more of the people in this field are women.
So the first reason why people believe the Mars and Venus myth is that they frequently make the fundamental attribution error by failing to notice how situations shape behaviors. So the next time you see stereotypical gendered behavior in either men or women, ask yourself what pressure is “in the air” that might help to explain their actions, and in what ways they may differ from one another.
Next time, another force that impels this myth: confirmation bias. We all know that seeing is believing, but sometime believing is seeing.
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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
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