Friday, October 23, 2009

Psychology Today? More Like Psychology Fifty Years Ago!

(Image created by Anne Taintor)
Pop evolutionary psychology, for all its vaunted iconoclasm, starts sounding awfully familiar when applied to what appears to be its spokespeople's favorite subject, innate gender differences and their implications for how men and women ought to be living their lives.

Here's an example, from another post on Satoshi Kanazawa's Psychology Today blog, this one titled "How to Be Happy":
One of the things that evolution has done is to make men and women very different. In some ways (though not in others), males of one species are often more similar to males of other species than to females of their own species, and vice versa. In some ways, in many ways, men are more similar to male chimpanzees or gorillas than to women. One of the ways that men and women are different is in what makes them happy.

Forget what feminists, hippies and liberals have told you in the last half century. They are all lies based on political ideology and on conviction, not on science. Contrary to what they may have told you, it is very unlikely that money, promotions, the corner office, social status and political power will make women happy. Similarly, it is very unlikely that quitting their jobs, dropping out of the rat race, and becoming stay-at-home dads to spend all their time with their children will make men happy.
(I'm not even going to address the staggering wrongness of the claim that male humans are more like males of other species than they are like female humans. Just take it from me that it is wrong, so extraordinarily, mind-bogglingly bizarre that I can only muster up one word in coherent response to it: No.)

So, men want to go out, make money and rule the world, while women want to stay at home and have babies. Those two nonoverlapping spheres are where men and women respectively excel, and the only place they can truly feel fulfilled.

Where have we heard that before?

It was quite familiar to Naomi Weisstein, who wrote these words (from her essay "Kinder, Kuche, Kirche as Scientific Law: Psychology Constructs the Female") in 1968:
It is an implicit assumption that the area of psychology which concerns itself with personality has the onerous but necessary task of describing the limits of human possibility. Thus when we are about to consider the liberation of women, we naturally look to psychology to tell us what that liberation would mean: what would give women the freedom to fulfill their own intrinsic natures. Psychologists have set about describing the true natures of women with a certainty and a sense of their own infallibility rarely found in the secular world. Bruno Bettelheim, of the University of Chicago, tells us (1965) that "we must start with the realization that, as much as women want to be good scientists or engineers, they want first and foremost to be womanly companions of men and to be mothers." Erik Erikson of Harvard University (1964), upon noting that young women often ask whether they can "have an identity before they know whom they will marry, and for whom they will make a home," explains somewhat elegiacally that "much of a young woman's identity is already defined in her kind of attractiveness and in the selectivity of her search for the man (or men) by whom she wishes to be sought ..." Mature womanly fulfillment, for Erikson, rests on the fact that a woman's "somatic design harbors an 'inner space' destined to bear the offspring of chosen men, and with it, a biological, psychological and ethical commitment to take care of human infancy." Some psychiatrists even see the acceptance of woman's role by women as a solution to societal problems. "Woman is nurturance ..." writes Joseph Rheingold (1964), a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, "anatomy decrees the life of a woman. ... [W]hen women grow up without dread of their biological functions and without subversion by feminist doctrine, and therefore enter upon motherhood with a sense of fulfillment and altruistic sentiment, we shall attain the goal of a good life and a secure world in which to live it." (p. 714)

These views from men who are assumed to be experts reflect, in a surprisingly transparent way, the cultural consensus. They not only assert that a woman is defined by her ability to attract men, and thus, a home; for this will allow her to set about her life's task of "joyful altruism and nurturance."

Though the reasoning behind it has shifted with the times, this notion of opposite sexes --- the active, aggressive male and the passive, nurturing female --- has remained more or less constant* in Western culture throughout history.

Equally constant, for as long as there has been a vocal feminist contingent protesting this consignment of women perpetually to kitchen and nursery, has been the experts' response to the feminists. For whatever reason --- whether it was physiological, as in the Victorian belief that brain and uterus competed with one another for a limited blood supply, and thus a woman could not make heavy use of one without causing the other to atrophy; or psychosexual, as in the Freudian belief that a healthy, mature woman's sexuality necessarily revolves around intercourse, and that childbirth represents her ultimate achievement and the only way to resolve lingering issues of "penis envy"; or romantic, as in the more recent backlash idea that a woman must marry young, prioritizing finding a husband and having children above education and work, or else she'll run out her biological clock and find herself unable to marry or have children later on --- deviation from woman's ordained role could only lead to disappointment, bitterness and literal and/or metaphorical sterility.

Indeed, an educated man from any of these eras --- Victorian, mid-twentieth century, 1980s backlash era --- would have been able to write an article very like Kanazawa's, urging women that neglecting their rightful, natural role in life would leave them lonely, bitter and unfulfilled.

If we go back far enough, everything new becomes old again, and we find evolutionary and physiological reasons being proposed for the inherent rightness of women's traditional role.

Psychologist Stephanie Shields describes some of these in a 1975 article in American Psychologist, titled "Functionalism, Darwinism and the Psychology of Women: A Study in Social Myth":

The first systematic treatment of individual differences in intelligence appeared in 1575. Juan Huarte [link] attributed sex differences in intelligence to the different humoral qualities that characterized each sex, a notion that had been popular in Western thought since ancient Greece. ...The humoral theory of sex differences was widely accepted through the 17th century, but with the advent of more sophisticated notions of anatomy and physiology, it was replaced by other, more specific, theories of female mental defect: the lesser size and hypothesized simpleness of the female brain, affectability as a source of inferiority, and complementarity of abilities in male and female. It was the developing evolutionary theory that provided an overall explanation for why these sex differences existed and why they were necessary for the survival of the race.


Because variation from the norm was already accepted [in the 1870s] as the mechanism of evolutionary progress (survival and transmission of adaptive variations) and because it seemed that the male was the more variable sex, it was soon universally concluded that the male is the progressive element in the species. Variation for its own sake took on a positive value because greatness, whether of an individual or a society, could not be achieved without variation. Once deviation from the norm became legitimized in evolutionary theory, the hypothesis of greater male variability became a convenient explanation for a number of observed sex differences; among them the greater frequency with which men achieved "eminence." By the 1890s it was popularly believed that greater male variability was a principle that held true, not only for physical traits but for mental abilities as well:

That men should have greater cerebral variability and therefore more originality, while women have greater stability and therefore more "common sense," are facts both consistent with the general theory of sex and verifiable in common experience. (Geddes & Thomson, 1890, p. 271)


In the United States the variability hypothesis naturally found expression in the new testing movement, its proponents borrowing heavily from the theory of [Havelock] Ellis and the statistical technique of [Karl] Pearson. The favor that was typically afforded the hypothesis did not stem from intellectual commitment to the scientific validity of the proposal as much as it did from personal commitment to the social desirability of its acceptance. The variability hypothesis was most often thought of in terms of its several corollaries: (a) genius (seldom, and then poorly, defined) is a particularly male trait; (b) men of genius naturally gravitate to positions of power and prestige (i.e., achieve eminence) by virtue of their talent; (c) an equally high ability level should not be expected of females: and (d) the education of women should, therefore, be consonant with their special talents and special place in society as wives and mothers.

Shields has also written more recently (2007) about how nineteenth-century psychologists differentiated the sexes within the realm of emotion:

Female reproductive physiology was at the heart of most explanations of the development of women's distinctive cognitive and emotional character (Vertinsky, 1988). ... The account generally followed this line: The human female's nervous system was limited (or prevented from its full development) either because of earlier achievement of full maturity [than the male] and/or because of the biological demands of development and maturation of the female reproductive system. At maturity, women's brain and nervous system were limited in their capacity to support the higher mental processes, specifically objective rationality and true creativity. The lower mental processes (emotion and certain perceptual skills) thus appeared to be or were comparatively stronger. Then, at menarche, the female's mental future was sealed: Blood that might have promoted further brain development was diverted to the uterus and sustaining fertility. The result of this abbreviated course of development and the demands of female reproductive physiology were limited intellectual capacity in comparison to men and a triad of interlocking traits: sensitivity, perceptual acumen, and, more important, emotionality.


In its feminine form, emotion was portrayed as a somewhat unstable sensitivity of feelings toward oneself and others. Masculine emotion, in constrast, was described as a passionate force evident in the drive to achieve, to create, and to dominate. Male/masculine reason was believed to be powered by a distinctively masculine emotion. Although passion could overwhelm reasoned behavior, well-controlled masculine passion is energy focused on "the battle of life." Passion was not simply equated with sexual drive, but as all strong feeling that powered creative thinking, social action, and physical prowess. Manly emotion was distinguished by its capacity to be put in the service of reason (Shields, 2002) and with a broader political definition of heterosexual manhood that emphasized Christian values of autonomy and self-regulation (Alderson, 1998). ... Women's emotion, feminine emotion, was portrayed as lacking the power and energy ascribed to masculine emotion, identified with an inferior and ineffectual emotionality. Women's emotion was more likely to be described as sentimentality, which was itself rendered as a degraded, pale version of normal emotional impulse that, in any event, women were not well equipped to regulate.

Men's emotions are strong, vigorous drives, leading them to do things, while women's, for all their greater refinement, are merely felt. Men are active, restlessly spurred onward, ever onward, by these heroic passions, while women's more diffuse emotionality renders them acutely sensitive to others' needs and emotions without ever feeling anything strongly enough to have emotional needs, or desires, or ambitions, of their own. As Shields points out, this ideal complementarity meshes nicely with the ideal of the nuclear family that was being popularized at the time:

The definition of women's ideal emotion evolved contemporaneously with the identification of women as the center of the household. This domestic image of woman featured emotional temperance and equanimity as its defining themes. Emotionally, the successful household manager was portrayed as expressing calm mother-love and unruffled housewifeliness. ...

The identification of the domestic sphere as one in which woman is the emotion expert (by virtue of natural qualities of attention to detail and emotional influences on judgment) undergirds a domestic structure of benevolent paternalism. As putative "emotion experts," the burden was on women to define healthy emotional home life. Nevertheless, women's tendency for "mere emotionality" calls into question the soundness of their judgment. The legitimacy of women's authority on emotional matters in the home was undermined by beliefs regarding the inherent weakness of feminine emotional nature. The intervention of someone with greater skills in self-regulation would be needed in matters of any importance.

She goes on to describe, and quote, the philosopher, sociologist and early popularizer of Charles Darwin's evolutionary theory Herbert Spencer's (whom we might consider an ancestral Evolutionary Psychologist) ideas about the nature and evolutionary origins of sex differences in human emotion and intelligence. Those ideas, not surprisingly, place male aggression, particularly competition among males, in the driver's seat of evolutionary progress, shaping women's behavior along with men's:

[Spencer, in the 1902 edition of his book The Study of Sociology:] In barbarous times a woman who could from a movement, tone of voice, or expression of face, instantly detect in her savage husband the passion that was rising, would be likely to escape dangers run into by a woman less skilled in interpreting the natural language of feeling. Hence, from the perpetual exercise of this power, and the survival of those having most of it, we may infer its establishment as a feminine faculty.

(This one-sidedness --- female behavior changing in response to male behavior or preferences --- is still entrenched in evolutionary psychology. Evolutionary explanations of female appearance, or, more precisely, female pursuit of feminine appearance, that invoke deep-seated genetic imperatives in the male to choose a young, healthy and fertile mate, abound, in defiance of the usual pattern of sexual selection in which females are the choosy partners).

Given how little was known during his lifetime about human evolutionary history (indeed, we're still very much in the dark about a lot of it), Spencer can be forgiven for making up tales of a Hobbesian state of nature in which the human psyche as he knew it was forged. Today, though, we have more actual evidence to work with than he did, but still the stories that are told about human nature are unchanged.


Shields, S. A. (2007) "Passionate Men, Emotional Women: Psychology Constructs Gender Difference in the Late 19th Century." History of Psychology Vol. 10, No.2, pp. 92-110.

Shields, S. A. (1975) "Functionalism, Darwinism and the Psychology of Women: A Study in Social Myth." American Psychologist Vol. 30, Iss. 7, pp. 739-754.

Weisstein, Naomi (1968). "Kinder, K├╝che, Kirche as Scientific Law: Psychology Constructs the Female." Boston: New England Free Press.

*An interesting exception to this pattern is the cultural back-and-forth over which sex has the more powerful libido. Though it is now believed that men are the insatiable ones, and women the natural prudes, at some other points in history --- the Middle Ages being the first such era that comes to my mind --- this thinking has been reversed, with women being seen as the lustful, animalistic sex and men the higher, more cerebral and spiritual sex.


Anemone said...

You read Satoshi Kanazawa? Is that a form of self-mutilation??

I've read the study on the myth of greater male variability - it was fascinating. I have to say I'm impressed that you can find the energy to tackle this topic. It's too much for me.

I find in general the Psychology Today blogs ooze privilege - none of these people seem to have ever had any serious problems. (And people with serious problems might be too emotional to be proper scientists?)

But still, Satoshi Kanazawa. That's extreme.

Anemone said...

Plus there's the whole issue of career versus just plain paying the rent. Women earn so little that money generally does make many of us happier. Sheesh!

Kowalski said...

I can't believe someone wrote that in all seriousness. Not only the gender nonsense, but telling someone "How to be happy." As if people didn't know that and need an "expert" for this.

"Forget what feminists, hippies and liberals have told you in the last half century. They are all lies based on political ideology and on conviction, not on science. Contrary to what they may have told you, it is very unlikely that money, promotions, the corner office, social status and political power will make women happy."
This is also the most tired and overused strawman argument against feminism.

Unknown said...

Very informative and thoughtful essay. It's disgusting when " just be yourself " is twisted into " know your place ", especially under the guise of " sound " psychological advice.

Speaking as a man, these articles always bother me, since being privileged has the caveat that you have to act like your fellow in-group members, and if you don't fit the stereotype of what a man should be, you become an outsider too ( not nearly to the same extent, but not having any sports interests in school is far from a pleasant situation, for example ).

Lindsay said...

"You read Satoshi Kanazawa? Is that a form of self-mutilation??"

Ha ha! Yes, I suppose it is.

Don't worry, I don't read him regularly at all. I was pointed to some of his choicer posts by Echidne, who has her own very sensible takedowns of them.

Butters said...

Great post.

Stephanie said...

So I guess according to this logic me with my career and my husband with his stay-at-home dad-ship have got it all wrong, backwards, and mixed up and the great happiness we both enjoy from this situation must be a figment of our imagination induced by liberal clap-trap even though we both tend to lean towards the conservative side of politics. Hm. Who would of guessed that we could be so utterly confused and mistaken about our own experiences of happiness?

Maybe this kind of junk is why his last counselor seemed to think "getting a job, any job" would be a sign of improved mental health?

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