Cross Sex Psychology: Compassion and Mercy

In recent posts, I’ve been suggesting a separation of the study of human behavior into two distinct studies: one for males, and the other for females.   This discussion was more from the perspective of studying data to better understand behavior.  I reasoned it would be useful to separate the data to study the different sexes separately instead of combining both into a study of generic human behavior.

It is my impression the modern psychology is based on a generalized human behavior that is expressed to varying degrees by men or by women.   The same behavior applies to both sexes, but there may be some difference in the statistics of the behavior.

In my conjectured alternative, I would start with one of the sexes and then begin to characterize behaviors based only on observations about men.   From that, I think we would come up with a set of descriptions such as aggression, competitiveness, stoicism, self-sacrifice, etc.   I think that the classical approach to studying human behavior did focus primarily on men and that is what motivated our choice of words for behavior.  It was later when we asserted that the psychology derived from male behavior also applies to females: the same terms apply but the expression and degree may vary based on physiology and culture.

I think it would have been better if we had started a separate characterization of female behavior to come up with alternative descriptions that fit within the context of being female.   The basic behaviors may be the same: both men and women get angry, have goals, etc, but there are different contexts for those behaviors.   We miss that context when we consider something like competitiveness to be a human behavior instead of using different terms for men and women.   Men and women are competitive in different contexts and as a result they use different behaviors to act on their respective competitiveness.

I think modern psychology may be harmful by applying a generic human psychology to therapy of both men and women.   By not separating out men’s and women’s psychology, therapist will inevitably apply therapy more appropriate for the opposite sex of the patient: I describe is as cross-sex psychology.   There can be harm in treating one sex with therapy more appropriate for the other.   However, we don’t recognize that risk in current environment where we apply a common human psychology.

My personal interest is more in the area of interpreting observations to come up with improved understanding of the behavior.   I prefer to approach that by first separating the sexes, but it is for the same reason as above: there is a risk that including observations of both men and women would result in inappropriate conclusions.  For example, there is a risk that we will end up concluding that men have female behaviors.

In a recent post, I discussed aggression but limited the discussion to males.  I acknowledged that women have a similar fact pattern that we also call aggression.  I wanted a different word to describe the female counterpart but I couldn’t think of one.   A distinction such as “male aggression” and “female aggression” does not really work because it emphasizes the common behavior of aggression that have minor differences between men and women.   I think they are very different.   I don’t think women have anything like aggression that men experience.   They experience something else, perhaps equally disruptive, but it involves different mechanisms and it comes up in different circumstances.   The two concepts are fundamentally different.   Or at least, that is my preference: to approach the two concepts as completely unrelated.

A few posts back, I described the Gillette short film or advertisement of “the best a men can be” (variation the older “the best a man can get” slogan).   In that discussion, I focused on the ad’s representation of aggression that must somehow be curbed.   Another way to describe the film is its focus on the solution for men being better: men need to be more compassionate.

Each of the scenarios of men behaving better are men being compassionate: in particular, coming to the rescue of the one who is most distressed: the bullied, the one being beat in a fight, or the one being the target of a chase, or the various girls getting unwanted attention.   In each case, the man comes to the rescue of the underdog, and in superhero fashion inevitably succeeding.

The problem with that message is that that kind of compassion is a female behavior, not a male one.  It does not make sense to say that the best a man can be is to be more like a female.   Such cross-sex psychology will not end up well.

In my earlier post, I proposed that in each of the illustrations, the ad promoted premature intervention.   A male behavior would be to allow the process to resolve itself.  In the case of approaching women, he would allow his counterpart to get to the point of getting rejected.  In the case of the bullying, chasing, or struggling, he would break up the fight only when it is clear that there is no point in allowing it go any further to determine winner and loser.   The natural behavior of the male is to find out who wins and who loses.   I describe this as a referee or coach behavior.   Both the referee and coach would step in to stop the struggle once a clear outcome is decided, but in contrast to the Gillette commercial, he would not reward or comfort the loser.   A man will acknowledge the winner even if he preferred the opposite outcome.   A coach of the loser would emphasize to the loser what he needs to be better in the future.  A coach of the winner would emphasize the need to choose more worthy opponents in the future.

In any case, there is a male act of breaking up of a conflict when there is a winner and a loser.   This act of breaking up a conflict is generous in a way: allowing the conflict to continue will risk more injury without changing the outcome.   However, this is clearly not an act of compassion.   The ad illustrated the compassionate act of stopping the conflict before it is resolved and then comforting the underdog (in the case of women being approached, we’re supposed to believe women are always the underdog when it comes to being approached by men).

The generosity of male intervention to stop conflict is a distinct trait from compassion.  For one thing, there a priority to determine a conclusion to the conflict: who won, and who lost.   For another, there is a need to acknowledge the winner even if one prefers the opponent.   The intervention of the conflict is to halt the conflict after the conclusion is reached: allowing it to continue further would not benefit anyone.   Though this male intervention is generous, this is not compassion.    A better word would be mercy.

Mercy is something men grant to a loser.   Inherent in the act of mercy is the acknowledgment of the loser.  The acceptance of an act of mercy is also an acceptance of one’s own loss.    In the case of man-to-man conflicts, the loser is humiliated to some extent, although this can be motivational for future self improvement.   A similar consequence occurs in a man-approaches-woman conflict where the man is rejected.

The third scenario is that the loser is a woman who fails to definitively reject an undesired approach: in that case, the consequence is the subject of the study of female behavior, outside of the scope of the study of men’s behavior.   If she approve of the man who steps in to interrupt the man who she failed to reject, both men will interpret the approval as a preference when I doubt that is her perspective at all.

The same fact pattern of being generous to someone in need appears in both men and women.   The nature of that generosity is very different.  Although it is an oversimplification, I like the idea of describing the intervention generosity by women as compassion and the intervention generosity by men as mercy.   In the female case, the generosity comes to comfort the loser and prefers to intervene before the conflict resolves to a clear winner and loser.   In the male case, the generosity comes when the conflict reaches a conclusion but the only reward to the loser is prevent him from experiencing further harm.

The APA also released a recent instruction that matched the message in the Gillette ad: that men’s health would be better if they were more compassionate in the sense of early intervention and comfort of the underdog.   This recommendation is what I mean by cross-sex psychology: asking men to take the female prescription of being compassionate instead of merciful.

As I said above, this particular choice of terminology is an over simplification.   There are many cases where men and women will intervene similarly and at similar times with similar comfort to the underdog.    I still think the motivation is still fundamentally different.   In the case when this happens within a man, the act is actually an act of mercy in a conflict he has no stake in.   An example is coming to the rescue of someone who is in a perilous condition such the case of a drowning person.   If suitably capable, both men and women will come to the rescue.   However, I believe they are drawing upon fundamentally different instincts: the woman will be drawing on the compassion to relieve the person, while the man will be drawing upon the recognition that the drowning person needs to be mercifully extracted from a lost battle against nature.   Once the person is saved, he would receive reassurance type comfort from a woman, but probably will receive from the man a word or two of advice about how to avoid that situation in the future.

I don’t think it is healthy to expect female behavior in men.

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