Women and Men are Guilt Ships Passing in the Night

arguingOnly occasionally do studies come out that improve the image of men as more than stubborn, violent and incorrigible beasts with malfunctioning moral compasses. The one I’m about to talk about isn’t one of them.

For this peek into male shortcomings, we turn to the Spanish Journal of Psychology. Researchers wanted to test the hypothesis that women in the West experience an especially high level of guilt as compared to men, and that these elevated guilt levels correlate with high levels of interpersonal sensitivity. 

Three hundred and sixty children, adolescents and adults were recruited and divided into male and female groups. Psychologists then put the groups through a battery of psychological tests to determine what elicits the participants’ feelings of guilt, and to gauge levels of interpersonal sensitivity.

What the research team found is that women in all three age groups experienced significantly higher feelings of habitual guilt than men, with the 40-50 year-old bracket experiencing the most. Female children and teens also experience more guilt than males in their respective age groups.

The correlation with interpersonal sensitivity followed suit for all age groups (women higher, men lower) – but, for men in the 25-33 age bracket the sensitivity score was especially low. The researchers noted that with such low scores, men in this group have a serious empathetic guilt handicap. Safe to say, not an appealing personality trait.

But there is some good news. Men in the 40-50 age bracket evidenced interpersonal sensitivity levels much closer to women’s.  When our (men’s) hubris starts waning in the neighborhood of 40, we start figuring out how to “connect” more effectively with others.

Unfortunately, there’s also more bad news. Just when men start figuring out the sensitivity thing, women in the 40-50 bracket begin developing high levels of “anxious-aggressive” guilt. This is habitual guilt of the worst kind because unlike empathetic guilt, which is sorrow for a person we have wronged in some way, anxious-aggressive guilt is all about bottled up unease and aggression—succinctly summarized in two words: powder keg. 

This is a shame. Men fumble along until near middle age before the empathetic sensitivity lights go on, and at the same time women—who are empathy masters for most of their lives—begin pulling their guilt inward. 

Can this be changed? I’d rather be optimistic and say — but of course. Much of it has to do with early socializing of boys and girls, and reexamination of expected behavioral norms (i.e. girls are sweet, boys are aggressive, etc).  The trick, according to this research, is to short-circuit the development of anxious-aggressive guilt in women, and juice up the development of interpersonal sensitivity in men. If those two dynamics can become better aligned, perhaps the ships won’t have to pass each other in the night and might be more likely to drop anchor for a cocktail.

HT: EurekAlert

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9 thoughts on “Women and Men are Guilt Ships Passing in the Night

  1. This doesn’t surprise me.

    By 40-50, if you’ve been a “good girl” and sucked up a lot of your anger as you’re socialized in almost every culture to do — whether caused by work, family or just life — you’re quite likely fed UP and primed to blow.

    Plus, over 40, a lot of other shit starts hitting you: friends get sick and die, you get sick or injured or need surgery; menopause shows up, your kids are costly teens and your parents older (i.e. possibly ill, needy and demanding.) That decade is a real toughie as this unexpected and unfamiliar shit-storm starts to swirl (not to mention, if you’re out of work, you’re facing terrible age discrimination in trying to get a new job.)

    Many men may not get that at all. The ones who do, and do anything they can to lighten that heavier-than-ever load, will find gratitude and hugs, not a fight.

    • Here’s a bit of the male side of this: by our late teens, most of us have seen the “good girls like bad boys” adage proved out enough times to buy into it. A few of us are lucky enough to meet someone early on who makes us want to be their “good boy”; a few others meet someone who won’t put up with us otherwise.

      A lot of the rest of us get over it, just as the study says. The others get red sports cars and divorces.

      In my forties (I’ve been a widower twice) I had relationships with women who had suffered at the hands of one or more jerks, and were hell bent on getting even. Since they’d never had a close relationship with a decent guy, they didn’t know how to recognize one. This was particularly true even when I was younger for women whose fathers had been absent, addicts, or abusive.

      One of my ex-girlfriends actually told a mutual friend that she kept a written list of “what he’s (me!) done, what I think he’s done, and what I think he might do.” Guilty, guilty guilty. No hearing needed. Three strikes, you’re out. After our relationship foundered,she figured out what she was missing, and was happily married to another guy two years later. Good for her, really, but a lot of needless pain for both of us.

      To my sisters across the gender gap: give us a chance before passing sentence. Remember, we’ve not only mellowed, we’ve lost a step (or several.) If it turns out later that we deserve it, we’ll be much easier targets for that frying pan.

  2. So many questions … here’s 3:

    1. If women feel more guilt than men, why is it assumed that they are more sensitive than men? Couldn’t it be that they have more to feel guilty about?

    2. Why on earth would you encourage men to cultivate greater ’empathy’ when the very research you’re discussing says it produces an adult whose psychological state can be described as a ‘powderkeg’?

    3. More broadly, why are women’s interpersonal traits always considered the measure of psychological health? Women have much higher rates of mental and mood disorders than men. You know that and I know that. So shouldn’t women be trying to be more like men instead of insisting we mimic women’s insanity?

    Seriously, I would love to hear your answers to these questions.

    • “2. Why on earth would you encourage men to cultivate greater ‘empathy’ when the very research you’re discussing says it produces an adult whose psychological state can be described as a ‘powderkeg’?”

      Pop psychology is full of such logical contradictions. On one hand, empathy (defined, in typical over-the-top fashion, as being a doormat) is a bad thing; on the other, it’s a noble virtue.

      How can it be both? Obviously, it can’t. But absence of logic never kept a profitable self-help notion down. Much of the problem is the exaggeration and over-generalization that accompany discussions like this–all men, all women, good/bad. But unless we can talk about SOME men and some men, and one instance vs. another, and degrees of good vs. bad, we’re wasting our time. We’re expected to give maxim status to cliches AND have a serious discussion at the same time–impossible.

  3. Forgive the butting in…

    1) Women are heavily socialized from childhood to care about others’ feelings, often ahead of their own — which is maybe why they suffer such high rates of depression (often masked anger.) Women who feel “guilty” they are not doing it all, and perfectly, shouldn’t even be trying, but they do.

    2.Hmmm. If men actually understood why so many women are so pissed of (read The Second Shift by Arlie Hochsild for an idea) — i.e. had empathy; i.e. the ability to feel what others feel — they might do something to relieve that anger. You can’t help someone if their frustration or suffering is apparently invisible to you.

    3. Yes. Women should be much more like men in some respects. Much more protective of their boundaries, and, likely, more selfish. The world would be a very different place.

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