This used to be a staple scene in action films, as I’m sure you know — a scary thing happens, and the woman the hero is in love with screams and freezes in helpless terror. Then the hero, cool as scotch on the rocks, steps in and vanquishes the scary thing and saves her. On to the kissing scene.
Many years ago I read a behavioral study that said, if anything, women are slightly less likely to panic and freeze in the face of danger than men are. And when you consider that men are something like ten times more likely to commit homicides than women — murder most often is an act of rage, I believe — you might suspect that men are at the mercy of their emotions at least as much as women.
But we can’t have hysterical men and brave, cool women in films because it doesn’t take us to the kissing scene nearly as easily, does it?
Also many years ago, I realized that when a man said his views were “logical” and mine were “emotional,” the word logical (used in context) meant “what I want,” or “what I believe,” with the underlying assumption that the wants and beliefs of a man are the correct, standard or default, wants and beliefs, and those of a woman are controversial, subjective and/or alternative. This was true regardless of the merits of the man’s position. The want or belief became “logical” by virtue of maleness. “Logic” was something like a trump card played by a man against a woman whenever he couldn’t think of a better argument.
I don’t see the male/female, logical/emotional dichotomy publicly expressed nearly as much as I used to, and younger women may not have run into it as much as I did. But it hasn’t entirely gone away, has it?
This correlates to the idea that whites favoring other whites is not ethnic bias, because whiteness is a default norm; what Publius calls the “invisible baseline” fallacy. In this view, bias occurs only when one deviates from the default norm.
Since the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, many arguments for and against her have turned on the question of whether a judge should have “empathy.” Yes, say some, because it helps her see how her decisions affect real people in the real world. No, say others, empathy and emotion are biases that blur the cold logic of the law.
But I say that if you step away and look at the question a little more broadly, the truth is that the decisions of every judge who doesn’t happen to be an out-and-out sociopath are being shaped by empathy. The distinction is, to whom is the judge feeling empathetic?
My view is that everything we think comes from a complex of psychological discriminations and impulses, little of which have anything to do with “logic.” The way we understand ourselves and the world begins to be shaped from the moment we’re born and continues to be shaped by the culture we grow up and live in. In other words, all of our understandings are biased. This is pervasive and inescapable. Often the difference between “logical” and “empathic” people is that an “empathic” person has at least a dim appreciation of his own biases, whereas a “logical” person is utterly oblivious to them.
This week Nicholas Kristof wrote a column about the difference between how liberals and conservatives relate to the world, and how much of these differences emanate from our prefrontal cortex, which “has more to do with moralizing than with rationality.” Our “logical” thoughts actually begin with the “moral” impulses. “It appears that we start with moral intuitions that our brains then find evidence to support.”
Human brains seem to be wired in a way that makes us want to join tribes and be part of an “us” that stands against an “other.” But if we get to know an “other” personally, they seem less strange and foreign and may cease to be an “other.”
“Minds are very hard things to open, and the best way to open the mind is through the heart,” Professor Haidt says. “Our minds were not designed by evolution to discover the truth; they were designed to play social games.”
Thus persuasion may be most effective when built on human interactions. Gay rights were probably advanced largely by the public’s growing awareness of friends and family members who were gay.
Our minds were not designed by evolution to discover the truth; they were designed to play social games. When John Yoo wrote memos that rationalized torture, he was not being “logical.” He was playing a social game and empathizing with his tribe. When John Roberts makes decisions that are blatantly biased in favor of corporations over individuals, he is playing a social game and empathizing with his tribe.
You see the picture — to some people, empathy is only “empathy” when it’s being shown to people who are not the default norm, or the invisible baseline, or whatever you want to call it. Otherwise, it’s “logical.”
I know my fingers may fall off as I keyboard this, but in his column today David Brooks has a pretty decent description of how the “logical” decision-making process really works. Our conscious, cognitive understandings of things are based on internalized models of what we’ve been conditioned to believe is “normal.” We may be able to articulate our ideas and perceptions in a coolly logical way, but the process by which we arrive at our ideas and perception is “complex, unconscious and emotional.” This is always true, whether we want to admit it or not.
So it is that two different and equally intelligent people may look at the same set of facts in a case and apply the same set of laws and come to different conclusions. They are working from different internal models of what the world is supposed to be. From this their judgments about which facts in the case are critical and which are not may be entirely different.
Brooks asks if Sotomayor is able to understand her biases as biases. This I cannot know. I’d like to think that people who have been the victims of bias are more capable of recognizing their own biases, but in my experience that is often not so. However, I do think that people with a healthy appreciation for empathy may also have more appreciation for the genuine messiness of human decision making than those who — foolishly — see themselves as “logical.”
Going back to the hysterical women and cool-headed men in films, and how that is so not like the real world — my observation is that women may tend to be better at processing emotions than men. That is, when a woman is frightened, she is less surprised — caught off guard, if you will — at being frightened than a man might be.
This is a gross generalization that cannot be applied to individuals; lots of men process emotions more skillfully than lots of women. However, I think there is a tendency for men to be less accepting of and intimate with their own emotions, and this may be as much nurture as nature; cultural rather than physiological.
What’s critical about emotions is not whether you have them, but whether you let them jerk you around and make you act in ways that are not in your best interests. And by any objective measure I’d say men self-destruct at least as much as women do. Logical, my ass.