Monday, March 15, 2010

Women Guilty Of Feeling Guilty? Conclusion: Reasons Are Genetic.

This is today's science topic. Or rather today's science popularization topic, because I wish to address this write-up of a Spanish study about the gender differences in feeling guilty:

Kim Moldofsky can feel guilt over just about anything — her children, stray cats, her work, her husband. "I am easily guilted," she told me, laughing.

Meanwhile, her husband, Brad, 41, remains blissfully guilt-free. "He is kind and caring but he can be more detached," said Moldofsky, a 41-year-old "mom blogger" and social media strategist near Chicago. "Sometimes I want him to get caught up in the emotion."

So, apparently, does a team of Spanish psychological researchers. In a reversal of Professor Henry Higgins' plaintive cry "Why can't a woman be more like a man?," it suggested that when it comes to guilt, men should be more like women.

Men are guilt-deficient, suggests the study, which was published in a recent issue of The Spanish Journal of Psychology. We lack "interpersonal sensitivity," while women suffer from destructive guilt largely imposed by society.

So women need support, while men need fixing. "This study highlights the need for educational practices and socializing agents to reduce the tendency towards anxious-aggressive guilt in women, and to promote interpersonal sensitivity in men," write the authors of the study, which was led by Dr. Itziar Extebarria of the Unversity [sic] of the Basque Country in Spain.

That's the summary of the study by the popularizer, one Brian Alexander, and it's sorta pre-flavored, to let you know what comes next.

And what does come next? Guess if he's going to say anything at all about ways to fix the excessive guilt feelings of women or if he's going on to discuss why men shouldn't be changed at all? I'll give you three seconds, my dear readers.

Yeah. He marshals three experts to discuss why men are the way they are, for genetic reasons. You are going to love these experts!

The first one is Christina Hoff Sommers. You might be familiar with her work which consists of feminist-bashing for the gal's auxiliary of the extreme right-wing in the U.S.. She's not a geneticist, though. She's a right-wing philosopher, famous for writing a book so endearingly entitled The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism is Harming Our Young Men. Of course Ms. Sommers thinks that the Spanish study is guy-bashing.

Here's the next expert: Simon Baron-Cohen! Hilarious:

In his book "The Essential Difference," the Cambridge University neuroscientist Simon Baron-Cohen (cousin of Sacha of "Borat" fame) wrote: "The female brain is predominately hard-wired for empathy. The male brain is predominately hard-wired for understanding and building systems."

If you don't find that hilarious, you should know that Baron-Cohen actually has no direct evidence for that assertion, what with us not knowing about the genes underlying empathy and so on. I don't think he's a neuroscientist, either, at least based on the Wiki description of his education. His serious research is in autism.

I have read The Essential Difference and can't take it seriously. He has several chapters on how he imagines prehistoric sexual division of labor, all off the top of his head. And his theory about women being all empathetic and men all systemic thinkers is just a new wrapper on the old theory that women are emotional and men are intelligent. Besides being based on a false dichotomy (yes, Virginia, you can be both! Or neither! And that's true for Virgil, too!), it is based on a questionnaire with biased questions. I have blogged about him here and here, for instance.

But wait! The popularizing Mr. Alexander actually interviews someone who might be a real expert: Elizabeth Shirtcliff, a psychologist and behavioral endocrinologist. Now we are going to learn exactly which genes are responsible for the excessive guilt of women and the lack of guilt in men! Here she comes:

The answer is yes, explained Elizabeth Shirtcliff, a psychologist and behavioral endocrinologist at the University of New Orleans. The fact is, men are supposed to feel guilt less intensely because men are, generally, less empathetic than women. It's the way evolution made us. But few people want to talk about it in those terms.

"Unfortunately, this is controversial," sighed Shirtcliff. "Anytime you talk about gender differences there are politics involved." For example, she said, "it does not fit with our modern egalitarian view we want to raise boys with."

Oops. That's not quite what I thought I was going to learn here. I thought it was going to be all about hormones and genes and shit. Instead, I'm being told that an egalitarian view isn't a good one to raise boys with. What would be better, then? A feudal view? A patriarchal view? A Taliban view?

That's my summary of Mr. Alexander's piece, though of course you should read all of it. What's most astonishing about it is the 180-degree turn it takes from the research it supposedly popularizes, not only in terms of arguing for a firm genetic explanation (which we cannot prove with today's evidence) but also (and this is more revealing of the underlying values) in terms of completely ignoring the idea that women might actually feel bad about all the guilt. Somehow that dropped into the Memory Hole, real fast.

But of course you have to do that if the differences are completely rigid and if they have nothing to do with the culture or the environment, naturally. You also have to equate empathy with "feeling excessive guilt."

I probably should add the usual warning: I'm not arguing here for the absence of some average genetic differences in the two genders when it comes to empathy, say. I'm pointing out that it is an open question, not something which various weirdly-picked experts can pronounce on. We simply do not have the data needed for such pronouncements.

I also don't like the simple erasure of all societal effects on such differences. For instance, the expectations in most societies are very different for men and women when it comes to who is responsible for children and how well they turn out. If women are held to much higher standards in that field then excessive guilt might be a fairly logical response (given the scarcity of supermoms). Likewise, traditionally women have been held responsible for the survival of marriages.
Link to Alexander's piece by kms.