If it were my task to begin studying human psychology, I would approach it is a data project. I would not attempt to divide the human experience into distinct traits even when presented evidence that such traits can be measurably distinguished from each other. I wouldn’t be looking at a trait, for example agreeableness, and measuring that as one component to inform a prediction about the person’s behavior or a prescription for how to advance that behavior to something that person would find more satisfying. Instead, I would measure the behavior and the stimulants that provoke that behavior. This is a far more difficult project than evaluating answers to a one hour test or interactions over a few talk sessions. In particular, my approach assumes the inevitability that there will be always something significant missed because it was not observed.
In contrast, modern psychology or even sociology is built on measuring specific traits or conditions and then assigning labels to specific combinations of these traits. The labels then become categories that can be used to separate different clusters of behavior. I am aware there is some success to this approach and that the various accepted approaches must work well enough in the sense that no other approach seems to work any better. Despite this, I’m unconvinced that a person’s behavior is determined by a combination of constituent traits measured by tests or observations. To me, a person’s behavior is atomic in nature, it can not be broken down into constituent parts. A person deemed to have high introversion may behave in ways that contradict this trait because the behavior is not constrained by that trait.
Perhaps my approach is doomed to failure or destined to come up with the same answers as the trait-based approach. I’m just not convinced that behavior is determined by the arrangement of traits in the way a clockwork is determined by its arrangement of gears. A person in a particular CANOE has the option of slipping out and swim free when the conditions merit it: whether free swimming is too enticing to avoid or absolutely necessary for survival.
In my approach to studying human behavior, the first thing I would do is separate men from women. Once separated, I would focus on one or the other and never mix them in my samples. I would not study human behavior. Instead I would study male behavior, and leave to someone else the study of female behavior. To some extent, modern psychology makes a similar distinction, but the difference is that in that approach if two metrics have a high correlation the metrics are measuring the same thing: if there is some metric for men and for women correlate highly then the metric does not depend on being a man or a woman. I don’t deny its validity, there are many components of behavior that do not depend on sex. There are also other behavioral components that humans share with other mammals, yet we still study each species separately.
All animals have similar motivations to seek food and shelter, engage in self defense and offence to gain advantages. Yet, each has a unique set of constraints determined by anatomy, metabolism, senses, and mental capability. There are similar differences between men and women as there are between humans and great apes.
I respect the fact that men and women behave differently. As a result, I would want to study how men cluster into different behaviors separately from how women cluster. Maybe particular cluster of female behaviors is identical to a cluster of male behaviors in the sense that the differences between men and women is no more significant than the differences between male peers in the men’s cluster. I still reject the idea of converting the behavioral clusters into a single shared cluster simply because I reject the idea of considering one sex when studying the other. I think there is a benefit of treating as spurious any similarity of any pair of behavioral clusters (one of men and the other of female). The project is to study male behavior or to study female behavior. Forcing a connection between the two will inevitably lose helpful distinctions between the two.
Of course, modern discourse emphasizes the commonality of the sexes in terms of their being interchangeable in many roles in society whether is it related to employment or to civic or family life. To further their goals, they emphasize findings of human behaviors shared equally by both sexes, and minimize the importance of sex as a contributing factor of overall behavior.
I pose no threat to their project. I have no aspiration to encroach on their practice. However, I am interested in understanding both male and female behavior to my own satisfaction, and potential benefit in terms of how to negotiate within my own life. Given this desire to understand both men and women, I feel it necessary to study them separately. Either is a monumental project and I doubt I have the capacity to do both.
My preference is to study male behavior, leaving the of female behavior to someone else who may be more motivated. My focus on male behavior comes from the fact I want to understand myself, a male, but also the more significant interpersonal negotiations in my life are with other men. I suppose there is a subjective motivation also, assigning some exotic nature to women makes seeking their companionship even more compelling. I’ll set aside the study of female behavior to others, and that includes taking too seriously what others have to say about the subject. I would rather have a more complete understanding of male specific behavior than to have a less complete understanding that nonetheless covers twice the population.
I had in mind writing a post on this topic earlier this week, before I heard the popular news about a new set of APA guidelines that highlight certain traditional male behaviors as detrimental to men’s health and asserts these are learned behaviors that can be unlearned.
Also, this is the week when Gillette published their new “the best a man can be” campaign that ridiculed many traditionally male behaviors of approaching women, of rough play, or of being the perpetrators of “metoo” allegations — in particular, the short piece emphasized that men encourage this behavior. I’ve seen many discussions that objected to being told how to behavior by a corporation and most of these also included a “not all men” or “not even most men” defense. My personal reaction to the short film is consistent with what I’ve said above: I saw the piece as a parody of the prevailing view of men in society. I don’t see anything wrong with any of the over-the-top behavior depicted in the piece. Instead I objected to the later example of intervening when they really should not have, or at least not in the way depicted. An elder male’s response to a bullied boy is better to coach the bullied boy to improve his confidence in standing up for himself, a buddy male should encourage the reluctant peer to approach a woman he’s attracted to, and even re-approach her again at a later time if rejected, a fellow party-goer would interject in a way to defuse an awkward situation for the resumption of enjoyment of everyone instead of going bouncer mode over such a small slight.
The Gillette film is a parody of the current discourse on maleness even if they as a corporation takes the message seriously. In particular, it is a parody of the fundamental proposal that there is only a single human behavior. In this modern view, any predominantly male behaviors are artificially imposed on men through conditioning and enforcement especially during childhood. The satiric conclusion is that we can actually create a future generation where these distinctions are eliminated from society, at least the declared unfavorable behaviors. Apparently, many people actually believe this. I think a major reason for this belief is the established view that human behavior has at most nearly-trivial variation by sex.
The parody is exposed in the scenes of the losing boys: the boy being consoled by a woman, the boy losing a fight in the grass, the boy running from a gang. All three were resolved the same way, protecting if not rewarding the loser. In real life such resolutions will not turn out well for the underdog — future conflicts will be inevitable and likely escalated by the aggressors while at the same time facing a weakened target.
An alternative positive response of the elder males is to fill the role of a referee. Let the scenario go, given full opportunity of the boy to solve the problem himself: the bullied to find a way to counter the bullying, the losing boy in the fight to find a way to turn around the situation, the fleeing boy to out run his pursuers. The referee interrupts the process when it is clear there is a win/lose conclusion or when there is imminent risk of major injury.
This also applies to the first example of the boy being consoled by the woman, the alternative is to talk about what happened with the first recognition that the boy needs to prepare himself to not lose the next time.
In all three examples, the parody is the concept that the sufficient intervention is stopping the fight, consoling the loser, and admonishing the victor. This is dangerous if actually followed. Returning to the referee model, the role of the referee is to stop the fight when there is a clear winner or when allowing the fight to continue will be too risky of significant injury, but the referee’s job does not stop with terminating the conflict. The referee has an additional duty of calling the fight: honestly acknowledging who won and who lost the conflict. In the fight in the grass, the boy in submission position lost. In the flight scene, the boy caught by his pursuers lost.
It is very important to honestly acknowledge the actually winners of the conflicts. This honest assessment of the result of the conflict is especially important when a man announces the result. While the immediate reaction may not be accepting of the result, in the long term the honest appraisal of the fight will present useful lessons for future. The victors may be advised to up their game by choosing more challenging fights. The losers may be advised to be better prepared in the future where that preparation may be smarter about avoiding the precipitating event, about being more confident about standing ones ground, or about being better prepared to succeed whether by running faster or by fighting better.
Gillette’s parody film turns the world upside down, rewarding the loser and punishing the winner. In this world, it is inevitable that the conflict will repeat with more vigor by the winner and even less confidence or preparation by the loser. In the parody world, perhaps another male would intervene in the same way, but that will just enable further escalation. The happy ending in their imaginary world is a new generation of un-incarcerated men who are too weak and too timid to do the acts suggested in the film.
The intent of this post is not to get too much into to the boys-will-be-boys aspect of the film. In my boyhood years, I often found myself in the losing side of fights. It was very clear that I lost and I didn’t get any reward for losing. However, I came away from the experience with something to think about for a long time afterwards. My point is that I was thinking about an honest fact that I lost the fight. Had I been lied to by a well-meaning adult who broke up the fight and consoled me as somehow a winner, I would have that story to think about for the coming months. In hindsight, it was better to come to terms with the truth: I was in a fight that I lost. It was my task to come to terms with that. I think I came to a unique solution that suited me and that solution didn’t turn me into a bully.
Again the APA story and the Gillette film distracted my attention from an earlier thought that motivated this post. The story I wanted to write about is a recent satisfying experience I had. It would be easier to describe the actual circumstances and that may even more more instructive for others who work with data. However, the real revelation was the source of the satisfaction, and that source was not an achievement of technical practice.
For the Gillette film situations, I proposed a referee/coach response as opposed to a rescuer/consoler response. The referee provides an honest appraisal of the conclusion of the conflict: there was an objective winner and an objective loser. The coach provides advice for how to interpret both results: the winner needs to choose more appropriate challenges, the loser needs to improve his game. The fallacy of the film is that the only solution in either case is escalation in the fighting, but that is not the only solution and I doubt it is the common solution. Part of the process of being coached is internalizing the lessons and finding a way to not repeat the experience. It is a detrimental to start the process with a falsehood that the loser was the real winner. However, the truth of a loss may lead to find some other way to win. The precedent of the fight did not necessarily have to have ended in a fight, and the circumstances of that precedent might have been avoidable. Of course, sometimes the sequence could have been unavoidable and that too needs to be honestly acknowledged in order to find the best solution going forward.
My broader point from the perspective of the boys on both sides is that the conclusion of the event benefits them if they had fair and honest acknowledgement of the conclusion as well as relevant guidance for them to think about to develop a response for the future. In other words, the events are an opportunity for growth. The role of the elder men is to provide the honesty and the wisdom that will permit positive growth in the direction of being better in terms of where the boys want to go in life.
The key is the elder’s introduction of honesty and wisdom to the aftermath of a terminated conflict. Unlike in the commercial, this is not a textbook like lesson meant to be memorized and repeated robot-like in the future. Instead this is something for each boy to think about and then work out his own solution for the newly acquired information made more urgent by the dramatic experience.
Again, I’m just talking about male behavior. Similar circumstances involving female children may or may not have a similar dynamic. I think it is important to isolate discussions of these scenarios by sex. The scenario in question is the specific behavior of males: older males passing on lessons to younger ones. I think this should be understood in isolation of scenarios involving female participants. (I have other thoughts about the Gillette’s depiction of the delicacy and hypo-agency of women).
There is a cluster of male behavior that I want to label as planter of seeds. When first started thinking of this post, I was immediately reminded of a classroom discussion in a course on ancient history where the topic was (I think) the Spartan men’s attitude toward their women. In my recollection, there was a lamenting by the men of the necessity of women in order to bring about a new generation. Just like modern day MGTOW hoping for future generations of sex robots and artificial wombs, they hoped for a way to life without women.
In any event, we were laughing at the depiction of their idea that the man provided a seed that needed the woman’s body to grow inside. They equated the sex act with crops: the man plants the seed in the fertile soil of the woman. Perhaps that was an accurate depiction of their understanding of procreation, but I imagine they knew better. The discussion may have been a metaphor for their real goal of assuring that the next generation would carry on their cultures and customs. They were well aware of enslaved children of vanquished foes where the defeat and enslavement ensured that the children’s father’s culture would cease to exist. Planting a seed is a metaphor for propagating the culture, something that goes beyond the physics of procreation.
I think there is at least a subset of males who find their greatest satisfaction is seeing the sprouting of seeds in the form of ideas or visions they have. This is a new idea to me that needs more time to develop. I thought about making this a universal trait that can be measured like we measure traits like openness or agreeableness. I was tempted to generalize the idea by defining different kinds of seeds appropriate for different roles men have in society, and I think I could take that pretty far. But as I mentioned at the start, a data approach to behavioral study does not require universal traits that have different intensities in different groups. Instead, I will describe as a distinct behavioral group that group that includes myself as a member. This group is most strongly associated with the overriding desire to introduce new ideas and see them adopted by the larger community — similar to the satisfaction of observing the sprouting of a deliberately planted seed.
It has been a very long time since I did any gardening. I recall the anxiousness I felt waiting for the right time to plant seeds, and then the different anxiousness waiting for the seeds to break through the soil a week or so later. It was not until I saw the green sprouts before I was relieved that the planting was successful.
I remember one season when something I planted did not sprout. I waited extra long for the sprouts that did not appear. Then I probed in the soil and found the seeds rotted a covered in mold. It is hard to describe the disappointment. I’m pretty sure we planted something in its place, the plot did not go unused that season. But the disappointment of the planted seeds that rotted instead of sprouted is a memory I can recall perhaps as much as 50 years later. It was that important to me that not only did I plant a seed, that I did it right so that it would sprout and that it would eventually bear fruit to harvest.
A class of male behavior is that of the referee/coach I mentioned above. This behavior is analogous to the farmer that carefully times when to plant his seeds and then watches anxiously for them to sprout at the right time. The referee/coach is planting the wisdom for the next generation to contemplate in context of specific recent experience. The wisdom is a seed, but like a seed it is not a sure thing that it will sprout. It may instead rot and never live. The referee/coach hopes that he plants the right seed at the right time so that the seed sprouts.
The satisfaction is primarily to see the lesson incorporated in the student new behavior. That new behavior need not mirror the intended behavior or mirror the coach. What matters most is that the lesson was transferred and that the student made some constructive use of that lesson. Perhaps to do something completely unexpected, but that something can be traced to the lesson.
I recall another experience with gardening where something planted was not the type of vegetable that I intended to plant. We planted from packaged seeds and the package may have shown green beans but instead what grew were the pale wax beans. I was happy the seeds sprouted and it did not disappoint me that the beans were a different color. As far as I was concerned the entire project was successful and I was satisfied even though things didn’t turn out exactly the way I predicted. If anything, I was more satisfied that something new resulted.
I propose there is a group of males having this satisfaction of seed planting as a major part of their life’s satisfaction. To have a satisfying life, they need that satisfaction of seeing something (anything) that they can trace to an idea or initiative they planted earlier. Conversely, this group has a unique vulnerability of the disappointment of not seeing results of their initiatives, of seeds they deliberately attempted to plant in some part of their social circles.
I am not aware of any psychology that addresses the adaptation to the disappointments of planted seeds the fail to sprout. I think this is an essential part of many men’s lives, and most probably have episodes of experiencing failures — of recognizing that the planted seeds will never sprout. They are left alone to cope with this.
Another anecdote from my own childhood but this one applies to raising rabbits. The mother rabbit had babies and I was happy to see them grow. One day, I was away from home longer than expected and I didn’t get back in time to shield them from the afternoon soon. When I got home, the little rabbits were killed. This was a hard experience because it would not have happened if I hadn’t been away that day. I don’t think I was terribly optimistic that I would be successful as a rabbit farmer (with the intention to sell the meat) but I took seriously the fact that I wanted this new generation of rabbits and it hurt me that they didn’t make it to maturity.
I mention this as an analogy of the attempts of men to strive to introduce some idea with the intention of seeing this take hold and eventually reach maturity. It matters less what that maturity looks like than it does that the mature product is traceable in part to something he did deliberately earlier. All to often, this earlier deliberate attempt to make a difference fails, it fails to get started, or once started it fails to mature. This results in a hurt that we are left alone to deal with. As far as know, this is not a malady recognized by psychology.
All that said, the motivation of this post was the revelation that I recently experienced where I saw the sprouting of something I planted earlier. I don’t know where it will lead, but the exhilaration of seeing the first signs of independent of life is something that I also am left alone to experience.
Of the things that men bring to society, some of us plant seeds.