What men don’t understand about women, what women don’t understand about men … and how big those lists really are
Just how much do men and women know about each other? Apparently more than they might think, considering most of the stereotypes we hear have at least a grain of truth to them.
A recent chat with Eddie Vela and Celeste A. Jones, both faculty members at Chico State whose area of study involves relationships, reveals some of the hidden truths (and fallacies) behind those stereotypes.
As a psychology professor, Vela studies how the brain processes information and, most recently, evolutionary psychology, in order to understand human behavior—including interactions between men and women—in relation to natural selection and evolution.
Jones, the director of the School of Social Work, is the clinician of the family. In other words, she takes the information Vela studies and puts it into practice as a therapist and consultant.
Here are the couple’s reactions to a few well-known “facts” about men and women.
Women are sensitive; men, not so much
Eddie: I think there are differences between men and women when it comes to that but you can’t ignore the influence of culture. It may be that men and women for a variety of reasons behave differently with respect to their emotions, versus have different kinds of emotions. I think they do have different kinds of emotions but I don’t think it makes sense to say that women are more emotional than men. Men are very emotional. They just, maybe for cultural reasons or other reasons, don’t feel as comfortable in letting them out and explaining them.
Celeste: I think men and women are both sensitive, it’s just how you express that. With women it’s much more acceptable to cry—even when you’re angry—and for men, it’s much more acceptable to have an angry response. And as you can see, society takes those in two different directions. When a man cries, there’s another thought about them—maybe they’re too weak—and when women are strong or maybe aggressive in some way, they’re considered a bitch or they’re considered inappropriate. So I really don’t see a difference.
Eddie: I don’t disagree with what Celeste is saying; I think she’s right. There’s truth in that. In this culture, at least in the last 20 or so years, there’s been sort of a push for men to try to be more sensitive—and there are other cultures that have made fun of that. In England, for example, at least in the recent past, they’re like, “Oh, another American man trying to get in touch with his feelings—oooh.” And so there are these cultural differences. But I think that men and women do have different emotional responses to similar situations.
I can give you one example of that, and there has been a lot of research on this and it’s led to a lot of controversy, but the research has been pretty consistent in finding this pattern. You have a male and a female in a heterosexual relationship. And they’re bonded together in some way. Let’s take a look at jealousy. Men and women are jealous. But they are probably jealous of different things and for different reasons. Imagine your partner has engaged in a sexual act with another person. Gauge how uncomfortable that makes you feel. Now imagine instead of your partner engaging in explicit sexual interaction with another person that your partner is starting to form an emotional bond with a person of the opposite sex.
And so you ask women this, and then you ask them to gauge which one is more distressing: both are upsetting, but which one is more upsetting? And then you ask men the same thing. What you find—I do this in my classes all the time—is this very distinctive difference. Women on average tend to find the idea of her partner forming an emotional bond with another woman more distressing than imagining him engaging in a sexual act with another woman. Both are distressing, but if you force them to make a choice as to which is more distressing, it’s pretty consistent—women tend to find the emotional bond more distressing. Men go crazy and find the idea of his partner having sex with another man much more distressing than forming an emotional bond. Like, OK, she’s got a guy buddy, so what?
So you see this interesting pattern, this difference. So, are they both jealous? Yes. But this jealousy manifests itself differently.
Celeste: But the question was: Are women more sensitive?
Eddie: That was the initial question, yes, and I would say, no, they’re not more sensitive, but I thought you said that they’re pretty similar in what they’re sensitive about.
Celeste: No, they’re both sensitive, it’s how they express it.
Eddie: And also what they’re sensitive about. So I agree with you—yeah, I think men and women are probably equally sensitive. How they display it is probably governed by a lot of cultural and social rules.
Women are in it for the money; men are in it for the sex
Celeste: I think that’s a tough one because I don’t look at it as money; I look at it as resources. And I do think that women have much more of a need to look at that bigger picture and not just immediate gratification. And not that men don’t. But I think that there’s an element that’s, with men, much more responsive to that sex first rather than this bigger picture, whether it’s this relationship, whether it’s the resources. But that’s a good question because it’s gone against previous relationships I’ve been in.
When I say resources, I don’t just mean a house, a car—I mean emotional support, is this person also going to be my friend, my partner, and the sexual aspect as well. Men do have this strong sexual desire that is a component of the relationship. I don’t see it in those terms [money vs. sex], and even those kinds of terms make my hair kind of stand up—but they’re supposed to because they’re stereotypes. But women and men do tend to go for the resources and sexual intimacy aspects.
Eddie: There is a grain of truth to that distinction, with respect to motivations. So, I agree with Celeste. There is evidence to suggest that women, on average, when they’re assessing the prospect of a male, part of what they’re looking for, in addition to physical components, psychological components (like his ability to commit, his ability to like children, having some sort of stable emotional state), there are social things that are important, like status, ambition. What women are also looking for is the degree to which the partner she’s involved in some sort of long-term bond with has access to resources, or the potential for resources. We call it money, but all money is is a generalized term for resources.
Yes, there seems to be a bias with respect to females in part assessing the worth of a male in terms of his resources, or his ability to acquire them now or in the future. Men are much less biased toward that. That could shift in a culture in which men don’t have any resources, and women hold most of the resource power.
Men tend to be more motivated by immediate sexual gratification. Not that women aren’t motivated by that because they are—both men and women have short- and long-term mating motivations—but they probably do so for different kinds of reasons.
It doesn’t take much for a male to assume a female is interested in him. A gaze that’s extended a little too long. For the female, it’s “I was just trying to be nice.” Often, the male is interpreting that as a potential sexual access. So, if males have a lower threshold—they’re more likely to have a hair trigger to assume she’s interested, then he’s less likely to lose possible sexual liaisons than if he had the opposite assumption.
It is so wrong to conclude that women are gold-diggers and men are just after sex. If females had no interest in male resources, and that was never an issue, those women would be less lucky in finding a sexual partner and reproducing and raising children than women who are more sensitive to that. Having some understanding of our motivations puts us in a better position to control ourselves. If I know as a male I have this tendency, I may be in a position to step back and say, “Hold on, she’s just being nice.”
Nice guys finish last
Eddie: I think you see this playing out especially in the lives of younger people dating in high school. The nice guy never gets the date. The nice guy—girls like him, he’s their best buddy—but he never has a date. What you get are these, “what is it about these big, jock, bad boys, that at least some women appear to be attracted to?”
Some of that may be due to reproductive motivations that are rearing their head and you can’t articulate why. When women have affairs, they’ll often pair bond long term with someone who is emotionally what they want, psychologically what they want, they have the resources—but if they have an affair often they’re going with the muscular bad boy.
Celeste: What’s the rationale for men having affairs?
Eddie: They tend to have affairs with women who show signs of having reproductive fecundity. Younger women. Women’s whose waist-hip ratio is .70, which seems to be the ideal female shape.
Celeste: Even though they’re married to an ideal female.
Eddie: Yeah, and you see this, and it’s in part, theoretically, because of men’s tendency to be reproductively more successful if they have liaisons with many women. So when they choose to do this, who do they choose? They choose younger women, and women with high reproductive fecundity—which is waist-hip ratios of .70. So then you say, I see this guy, and he’s having an affair with this idiot, this woman who is maybe not the ideal woman to have an affair with. What you have to take into consideration is that while maybe this person would prefer a younger woman with a .70 waist-hip ratio, he’s not in the position to get it.
So, preference and behavior are two different things. We all tend to settle for the best person who will settle for us. And if I’m in a position to get what I want, I’m much more likely to go for the ideal. But a lot of men and women, most of us, are not in the position to get what we want. We settle for what we can get.
Celeste: So we settled—you and I settled.
Eddie: All of us settle.
Celeste: So romantic. All these theories kind of suck the romance out.
Eddie: They actually don’t. Because the capacity to fall in love, head-over-heels romantic, I can’t help myself love, really has a clear evolutionary advantage. If you kind of reverse-engineer romantic love, the “I can’t help the way I feel” is actually a promissory note to the other person that “I’m not going to leave you when somebody better comes along,” because somebody better will come along. If I can’t help the way I feel, then I can’t help continuing the way I feel. So I can’t just choose to go with somebody else. So if I truly can’t help it, and I convince her that I can’t help it, then she’s much more likely to feel safe in sharing her life. If I could help it, statistically somebody better will come along. Why should I invest in somebody when they’re just going to run off with the next person who comes along? If the person actually can’t help the way they feel, then it’s a promissory note. I’m not going to leave.
If that’s the case, then you have a powerful tool to lie. Because not only are we emotional beings, we’re also very sublime liars. So if we want to get what we want, then we can use that information to say, “I really love you. Oh, you’re the only one.” You can now use this in a way that’s negative. But what’s the best way to convince somebody that I can’t help the way I feel? To actually not be able to help the way I feel. To sincerely not be able to help it. And so now we have an evolved capacity to be sincere and altruistic and committed—because that actually enhances our reproductive fitness.
Men are more interested in physical beauty; women are more interested in the “whole package”
Eddie: If you take a look at male sexuality, males are much more turned on by the sight of a nude body than females are. Males are much more interested in multiple partners than females are. When men look at pictures of women that vary in attractiveness, the pleasure center [in the brain] lights up like crazy when they see an attractive woman. It’s like brain candy. You see this incredible response and that’s not the same pattern that you see in women’s [pleasure centers] for attractive men. If you show heterosexual women a series of pictures of the same guy, he’s an attractive guy, and in one scene he’s just kind of standing there looking hot, in another scene he’s vacuuming, in another scene he’s holding a baby, looking at the baby, and in another scene, that same child is there but he’s next to him and he’s not really paying attention to him. So you ask women to rate which is the most attractive. You see an extremely strong bias towards women choosing …
Celeste: … the one with the vacuum cleaner [laughs].
Eddie: Exactly [laughs]. No, they choose the one where the guy is holding the baby.
If you did the same thing with men—hot woman, and she’s vacuuming, she’s holding a baby, the baby’s next to her, she’s just sitting there looking hot—and you ask men to rate which one is the most hot? They rate them equally hot. Men don’t care whether there’s a baby there, she’s doing housework or whatever. They’re just looking at her hotness. And so you see in psychological studies that there’s a bias that, at least initially, men will react differently to physical aspects of a potential partner than women.
Celeste: I think if you had the men vacuuming, then doing the dishes, and doing laundry, we’d rate them all hot. [Laughs]
Eddie: Some men have learned this. And they use it to their advantage. When a man is dating a mom, often the male will quite unconsciously form an emotional bond with the child, to prove to the mom that “look how good I am with the children.” He may not even know it, but he’s using the child to gain access to the mother. But once the bond is there, once the commitment is there, then all of a sudden there is a shift—sometimes it’s subtle, sometimes it’s dramatic—in the way he views this child now.
If a college male wants to get a lot of attention from females, you know what’s a really easy way to do it? Walk a puppy. It is sort of an implicit message, “Look at how good I am with children, with small, vulnerable things.”
Men are aggressive; women are nurturing
Celeste: That’s a good one. I think that’s what you see. I think both males and females have those feelings. But again, I think our society tends to be more accepting of women showing the nurturing more, and not the aggression. And men showing the aggression and some of the nurturing, but not too much.
Eddie: Men and women are probably equally aggressive, but they’re aggressive in different ways, and in response to different things. In terms of intensity of aggression, I think men and women are equally capable of intense aggression and capable of aggressive acts. In terms of physical aggression, men’s upper bodies tend to be stronger than women’s, they tend to have more muscle mass, they tend to have more of a willingness to engage in physical aggression, and there’s a lot of theoretical reasons to expect this—generally men are competing with each other over women.
One of the major myths I thought you were going to talk about was that there’s a gender war between men and women, which is so opposite. Men and women want each other. They’re not in war against each other—they want each other. If anything men are in competition against other men and women are in competition against other women for men. But men and women are not in war.
Celeste: I think we just established that women don’t necessarily talk more than men.
Eddie: [Laughs] It’s true. And when you take a look at the content of what we say during the day—70 plus percent of what we talk about is gossip.
Celeste: Even men.
Eddie: Even men. What’s gossip? It’s insider trader information. We are social beings. The more we have insight into the social interactions of other people, the better position we are in to be socially successful as well.
Men and women can’t be friends
Eddie: In When Harry Met Sally there’s a scene where he’s trying to tell her that men cannot be friends with women. And she says, “Oh yes they can,” and back and forth. Well there’s been research on this and what you end up finding is, can men and women be friends? Well, yeah, they can. But when you interview men, and you ask them: Is part of your motivation for being friends with this woman the chance that there might be some potential future sexual liaison? The vast majority of men admit yes. And you ask women and the vast majority say no.
Does that mean men and women can’t be friends? Sure, they can be friends. But there might be slightly different motivations.
Eddie: Very bad. Opposites cause problems. The people who report being happiest, being the most fulfilled, are people who form a long-term relationship with someone who is similar to them. They’re both looking in the same direction—they’re not looking into each other eyes, they’re looking in the same direction. Similarity turns out to be really important—in religious beliefs, in personality, in a lot of different things. So, opposites may attract, but in the long term, they’re probably going to be less successful.
Celeste: It creates more avenues and opportunities for conflict.