Sunday, June 24, 2012

Am I too hard on Psychology Today?

Honest question here. The suggestion was made by psychologist-I-admire-greatly Daniel Gilbert after I bitched to him on Twitter about an article he'd retweeted from that publication. The article is called The 7 Worst Things About Being a Male by psychologist Douglas Kenrick, and I have no objections to the existence of such an article. What I object to is this:
The cultural stereotype is that it's great to be a man. Not only do we have shorter lines at the rest room, but we make scads more money and can reach things on higher shelves in the marketplace. We don't have to deal with double standards or glass ceilings, and we're raised to have confidence and high self-esteem, so we can all comfortably act like the Sean Connery version of James Bond. Cooly knock off a few bad guys in the afternoon, then drive our Aston Martins to our expensive hotel in Monte Carlo, where beautiful movie actresses are waiting to throw themselves into our arms. 
But in truth, it ain't like that down here in Kansas. 
You know how democracy is the worst form of government, except for all others that have been tried? Being male is the worst form of gender, except for all others that have been awarded/foisted. And by that I obviously don't mean that males are superior-- I mean that being male is superior. It's no "cultural stereotype;" it's a fact. As Louis CK says, it's a subscription you'd renew.

Or to put it philosophically, if prior to your birth your vision of the future was obscured by John Rawls' veil of ignorance and you had to pick your gender randomly, you'd be hoping the card you pull has an X and a Y on it. There are some unfortunate things about being white, too-- you should see how much high SPF sunblock I can burn through (literally) in a summer-- but I sure am not going to open an article for a psychology magazine by saying that the claim that it's great being white is a cultural stereotype. There may not be any Aston Martins or beautiful movie actresses (or actors, which others might prefer), but all things being equal you stand a far better chance of at least getting the former. If you're going to denigrate aspects of being a member of the majority-- even if all of the complaints you voice are entirely legitimate-- you'd better not begin by thumbing your nose at the privilege that majority status conveys. It makes you look...well, privileged. 

That's my primary beef with Kenrick's article, and it doesn't make me particularly keen to read the book from which it was excerpted, called Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life. If you're interested in that combination of topics in particular, I'd recommend David Buss's book The Murderer Next Door instead. Buss has done so much research on the uglier side of romantic relationships, specifically sexual jealousy, that you wonder if he has daughters and if so whether they're allowed to date. And yet he is wonderfully egalitarian in his treatment of the facts without attempting to either explain away any behavior or convict an entire gender based on it. There are other conclusions in Kenrick's piece that cause me to wonder about his logic, namely:
Clark and Hatfield also had college men approach college women on campus using the same lines. The guys were reasonably attractive, as judged by the fact that over 50 percent of the women said "yes" to the request for a date. But the number of women who said yes to the sexual offer was precisely zero (the study was done twice, both before and after the AIDs epidemic, and the number was zero before as well as after). I heard a talk recently which revealed that it's not all about sex at all - the researcher discovered that if women were not afraid of men, if women found men attractive, and if women thought they'd have more fun in bed with a strange man, the sex difference would go away! The researcher seemed to take the findings as a blow to what she called "essentialism."  Perhaps that's good news for Brad Pitt. But unfortunately, most real women essentially find most real men rather scary, unattractive, and unsexy, and they consequently say "No."  
Err, the guys in this study were judged attractive, as Kenrick notes by pointing out that plenty of women said yes to a date. So not looking like Brad Pitt is not the problem. Essentialism, as the female researcher (who might be Terri Conley, and who Kenrick seems to believe invented the word) is using it, is the portrayal of characteristics as inevitable. Gender essentialism is the portrayal of aspects of gender as inevitable when they really aren't-- the perception of strange men as unsafe and poor in bed to the point of precluding women from being willing to sleep with them is not inevitable, as can be seen by differing levels of promiscuity practiced by women in different societies, and how that promiscuity is perceived. These will probably always be factors that women consider, because frankly they have to. As I wrote about recently, women have good reason to be suspicious about sexual propositions from total strangers regardless of how they (the strange men) look. 

Contrary to this commercial most women would not consider themselves "lucky" to wake up and discover that they'd had sex without their knowledge with even a very attractive man. I'm pretty sure that's true even if it also involves being married to him and if that man is George Clooney, though I imagine both "unsafe" and "poor in bed" would be significantly lesser concerns-- not because Clooney is necessarily either kind or talented in bed, but because if he sexually attacked a woman it would be all over the news in a heartbeat (by virtue of him being George Clooney) and because people in general are less likely to be sexually selfish in an ongoing relationship as opposed to a one-night stand. Kenrick offers no real evidence that "most real women essentially find most real men rather scary, unattractive, and unsexy," and the fact that a bunch of women turned down a bunch of strange men offering an impromptu proposition for sex sure doesn't cut it. Being physically attractive is not an issue, and it's way too easy to change the circumstances to make the man in question sexy and un-scary, hence he is not "essentially" either one. And that's fortunate, not unfortunate.

Back to Psychology Today generally. This is the third post in which I've criticized the magazine-- the previous two concerned presentation of atheism and sexual harassment, respectively. I disliked the treatment of atheists as though they had done something to earn the very real prejudice that exists against them in America, and of women who dislike being propositioned by strangers (hey look, there's that again) as being irrational and prudish. I also made fun of the tendency to illustrate the predominant psychological topic being addressed in so many issues of the magazine with a cover photo involving some kind of manipulation of an attractive white female model, and the theme of presenting every phenomenon discussed as being some kind of new revelation for psychologists. Gilbert suggested that I hold Psychology Today to too high a standard, that it's not a journal, and it's for people who know nothing about psychology. Fair enough, but are these psychology know-nothings a group comprised of white Christian straight men? I ask not because I'm opposed to fluffy articles in magazines, but because it sure seems like this particular fluff has that particular...well, flavor to it. 

If you are a person who really knows nothing about psychology, I would encourage you to...keep reading my blog. No, I'm kidding-- you should keep reading my blog because it's just generally quality stuff. If you enjoy pop psychology because it's fun and illuminating, there are a host of places to find it on the web-- so many that I'd hardly know where to start in listing them. If you're looking for brief and easily understandable stories on current psychological research in print, I would say to go with Scientific American: Mind. Only six issues a year, but every one of them packed with insights into psychology and neuroscience that are actually informative and comprehensible at the same time (though they really need to make an app of it). Again, there is nothing wrong with fluffy psychology-- it's just that you can't, or shouldn't, provide fun at the expense of accuracy or with the added "bonus" of bolstering prejudices. That's alienating to readers who don't share those prejudices or are even the target of them, and it's irresponsible in terms of helping those who do have those prejudices get rid of them. 


  1. Psychology Today leaves a lot to be desired. I don't think you're being too hard on them. I know there are psychologists who write for the magazine and plenty who blog (a marketing tool, I assume), but truth is I don't think anyone I know reads PT. Occasionally, I run across a link to something interesting and it might send me off reading elsewhere, but otherwise I don't actually seek it out.

  2. There are some interesting points in time in this article but I do not determine if I see every one of them center to heart. You can find some validity but I will take hold opinion until I investigate it further. Excellent write-up , thanks and now we want far more! Added to FeedBurner in addition.
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