I told Rob and Scott I was going to try to reform and be a more prolific blogger. I can be hobbled in blogging by perfectionism and the belief that no one really needs to hear my opinion (strangely, I am also quite argumentative). But this morning I found myself with an opinion that was even a little bit informed, so I am seizing the moment!
Over at Unfogged, LizardBreath takes issue with The Atlantic’s portrayal of women as “innately” more socially sensitive, and thus essential to group productivity. LizardBreath argues that differences between group A and group B don’t tell you much about individuals, and that social sensitivity is a learned skill. But I’ll go a step further. While I feel compelled to offer the neurotic caveat that I by no means have a comprehensive grasp of all the social sensitivity literature, there is evidence to suggest that observed differences between men and women on sensitivity tasks, in the lab and perhaps in the world, are sometimes not a result of ability differences, but of different degrees of motivation to perform sensitivity.
This is a meta-analysis of empathic accuracy studies. They use a somewhat different paradigm than the Reading the Mind in the Eyes task the Atlantic article discusses. Instead, empathic accuracy studies either conduct a mock therapy-ish session, which the study participant observes, or have two people who are close to each other interact. Then the study participants — either the observers in the first kind of study or both members of the dyad in the second — describe the internal thoughts of the person they were observing or interacting with and those descriptions are compared to the target’s own description of their thoughts. The meta-analysis found that gender differences in empathic accuracy were only found when study paradigms asked participants to rate their empathic accuracy — in other words, when they made it very salient that the study was *about* empathy. When no self-rating of empathy was solicited, there was no difference. Ickes and his coauthors interpreted this as a result of different levels of motivation in the lab. When you make it clear to your participants that you’re testing their empathy, women think something like, “I am woman. Women love children, flowers, and harmony,” and men think “I am man. Men like cars, numbers, and weapons.” So women amp up their own performance to be consistent with their activated stereotype of themselves, and possibly men even suppress their own performance. In an experiment to test this hypothesis, Klein and Hodges found that paying men and women to be accurate (in other words, amping up both groups’ motivation) wiped out any gender differences.
This accords well with my sense of the world. Of course there are some people who are just uniformly social dolts. But I think it’s more common that when people are being insensitive, particularly people who have risen to reasonably high-status occupations, it’s because they are choosing not to deploy their social intelligence in a given situation because they’ve calculated, probably unconsciously, that it’s not worth the effort, or they are deploying their intelligence by strategically being an a**hole. They’d be capable of being exquisitely sensitive in a meeting with their boss. The real answer to how you get more empathy, turn-taking, etc. in a group is not just to dump women into it, but to create organizations that value those qualities. I don’t see it as an inevitability that women’s social behavior (I choose “behavior” in place of “skill” advisedly) will get them more money, because doing the best work and advancing in rank within an organization are not always accomplished with identical sets of strategies. I can think of situations I’ve personally witnessed when someone (in the most salient case, a man) whose kindness, empathy, and patient communication were totally essential to the functioning of an organization, but the organization didn’t retain him, because the people running the show had no sense that kindness and empathy were very important things to value. If they’d bothered to ask the people who worked with him, including low-status people, they would have gotten vehement pleas to do whatever it took to keep him on — not just because he was pleasant, but because he was the glue that held all the other jerks together. If you create incentives to be gentle, empathic, and cooperative, and you foster a culture that genuinely values kindness, then that’s what you’ll get, from men and women.