Sunday, July 24, 2011

Advantages of Life Inside the Cave

Men do not, as the ridiculous stereotype suggests, go “into their caves” when they are experiencing negative emotions. Men single-mindedly work their shit out. We don’t need to talk to anybody. We just need to determine for ourselves what went wrong and how to stop this from happening again. When we’ve done this, we’ll return to our normal, happy selves and get on with our busy days. Simple – and very effective.

Mind you, this is not the same as avoiding or repressing negative emotions. That would be a psychological catastrophe. But not communicating about emotions and not dealing with them are two different things. Men deal with negative emotions by internalizing them. They become part of our life experiences, and therefore, contain important lessons about how to avoid screwing things up in the future.

Contrary to the prevailing political landscape of the day, it is women who do not handle their negative emotions particularly well. Don’t believe me? Let’s check out the medical evidence. Women experience more fear, more sadness, more worry, more stress, more guilt, more shame, and more disgust than men. About the only negative emotions where men prevail are boredom and anger (though even this depends on the target of the anger).

And when it comes to chronic negative emotions, the numbers aren’t even close. Women are more likely to diagnose themselves as being depressed from adolescence all the way into old age. Clinical diagnoses of unipolar depression are far more prevalent for women compared to men, and women are more likely to think about and attempt suicide, though men are more likely to actually get the job done.

Now I’m perfectly willing to accept the argument that many of these “diagnoses” reflect a biased, patriarchical psychiatric profession just looking for a reason to classify women as fragile, emotional weaklings. We covered that earlier in Why Men Stigmatize Menstruation (February) and That’s Hysterical! (February), and I’ll be the first to suggest that it applies here as well. But much of the research involves self-diagnosis. No psychiatric patriarchy to blame for these results. This is women describing their own state of affairs.

When we look at research addressing how men and women react to negative emotions we get an even clearer picture of which gender struggles the most. Research indicates that women ruminate over negative emotional experiences longer than men. Rumination reflects the inability to stop thinking about something troubling, and is viewed as a precursor to clinical depression. This suggests why women need to communicate their negative emotions – they can’t stop thinking about them! By contrast, men do not ruminate. They get over it. That cave is starting to look pretty good after all.

We’ve heard an awful lot about how important it is to communicate negative emotions to others, and of course, about how much better women are at doing this. But why communicate? What’s the point? Women talk about their negative emotions with those close to them (more often than not with other women) because they want sympathy. Now let’s closely consider what sympathy is.

When you sympathize with somebody who’s feeling bad you are essentially communicating that “I know just how you feel!” That’s the catch phrase for sympathy isn’t it? But if that other person is feeling bad to start with, then knowing just how they feel entails feeling kind of bad about the same thing, though perhaps not to the same degree. And the net effect of all this sympathising is that the person who initially felt bad feels a little better, as if some of the negative emotion has been passed along to the sympathizer.

Women don’t deal with their negative emotions so much as pass them off to the people they feel close to. How does this constitute a more sophisticated and noble approach to handling negative emotions? I’ll take the man cave every time. And when it comes to romantic relationships, things get even worse. Women detest when their men give them the “silent treatment”. How many men have heard something like “Can’t we just talk about it?”

But men don’t want to talk about it; they want to determine, by themselves, what went wrong and how to fix it. And contrary to what to women might think, once men have worked out a decent solution, we’ll be more than happy to chat all day long about it, even welcoming your input to improve the remedy further. We just don’t want to talk while we’re feeling bad. There’s no point because we haven’t worked out what to do about it.

Moreover, some women (and let me emphasize the word some), view their romantic partners in terms of the very simple principles: (a) I’m unhappy, (b) it is his fault, and (c) he has to change so I can be happy again. Let’s get this straight. The person in the relationship who is unhappy is the one with the problem. They are the one who needs to change, presuming of course, that they want to be happy, an assumption many married men have no doubt questioned from time to time.

Requiring your partner to change because you’re unhappy is the ultimate example of denying responsibility for your negative emotions. It’s passing the responsibility for how you feel to your partner! So, once again, give me the cave every time, provided of course, that a nice, pleasant conversation will eventually ensue about how to prevent all the unhappiness in the future.

Just to reiterate the point about not all women being the same, when my partner is upset about something, including something I said or did, she often goes days without speaking to me. Though not a word is spoken, I understand her completely. Women, you can use our cave any time you like.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Men: The "Expendable" Sex

One gender difference that has not received much attention, perhaps due to the political landscape of the last half century, is that it is harder to be a man than it is to be a woman, at least in terms of existence and survival, the very basics of the game of life. Male foetuses are more likely to spontaneously abort, die at birth, die in childhood, die as young adults, die at – well males are more likely to die than females at virtually any age – at least in rich, Western democracies.

Sadly, more insidious cultural, political, and social factors influence the gender ratio in other parts of the world, often to the detriment of women. But in the absence of any deliberate attempt to alter nature, males have a higher mortality than females at all ages. Then how does nature ensure that there are enough males? Well, in actual fact, males are more likely to be conceived than females, and more males are born than females. So, nature corrects for the vulnerability of men by making more of them.

Men are far more likely to suffer from 290 X-linked recessive maladies, because they only have one chance of receiving the dominant (non-disease causing) gene. The Y chromosome doesn’t give them the second chance that women have. Some of the potentially fatal conditions are Duchenne’s muscular dystrophy, agammaglobulinemia, adrenoleukodystrophy, and severe combined immunodeficiency, but there are many, many others in the list of 290 that are exceedingly unpleasant if not lethal. And if genetically-based diseases don’t kill a male, microbe-based diseases are more likely to be lethal. The female immune system fights more pathogens more effectively than the male immune system. This is true in humans and in rats.

Indeed, being male is a deadly gamble in a variety of species. In the animal kingdom females generally outlive males. This is true of arachnids (where she often eats him for supper!), many species of birds, crustaceans, various invertebrates, seals, sheep, and cattle. Only in certain species of fish and bird does research provide an example of males outliving females; but the rule is that she will outlive him.

Over the course of the 20th century, as overall life expectancy has dramatically increased in rich Western democracies, the gender gap in longevity has also increased. Women have benefited more than men, because the gains in longevity have largely been due to the eradication of diseases (i.e., internal factors) and birthing of children. This suggests that it is the external factors which remain and have a strong influence on the gender difference in terms of health and mortality.

Women outlive men in rich countries because men do things that have lethal consequences. Men disproportionately die from accidents (automobile, military, occupational, etc.) and destructive behaviours (smoking, alcohol, drugs, etc.). The very act of survival seems to be more of a challenge for men. Indeed, men take more risks than women in general, something we’ll discuss in greater detail when we examine which sex is indeed lousier at driving. Men also perceive less danger and risk in a given circumstance, suggesting that not only are men willing to take greater risks than women, but they are also less aware of the risks they do take. Even the use of drugs reflects the male tendency to take risks. She takes legal drugs prescribed by doctors; he takes illegal drugs prescribed by pushers.

From an evolutionary perspective, it’s reasonably easy to see why nature would create such fragile, risk-prone men. Let’s start with a population of 1000 males and 1000 females in some hypothetical culture. If 999 males died for some reason, 1000 new babies could be added to the population in the next year, greatly increasing the species’ survival prospects (and what a lucky boy he would be!) But if 999 women died for some reason, only 1 new person could be added to the population in the next year (and how many men would die or be seriously maimed fighting for the opportunity to be the father!) One little accident or deadly microbe and the whole species would be wiped out, regardless of how many men were left. Nature seems to have made men the “expendable sex”, providing them with an mortality-prone biology and a deadly behavioural repertoire. So what’s the benefit of having all these fragile but dangerous men around? You’ll have to check back next month for the answer! How’s that for a cheap teaser?