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October 02, 2010

Useful Study of the Day

Science addresses one of the great mysteries of life:

If you think you hear women saying "I'm sorry" more than men, you're right. Women apologize more often than men do, according to a new study.

But it's not that men are reluctant to admit wrongdoing, the study shows. It's just that they have a higher threshold for what they think warrants reparation. When the researchers looked at the number of apologies relative to the number of offenses the participants perceived they had committed, the researchers saw no differences between the genders.

"Men aren't actively resisting apologizing because they think it will make them appear weak or because they don't want to take responsibility for their actions," said study researcher Karina Schumann, a doctoral student in social psychology at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. "It seems to be that when they think they've done something wrong they do apologize just as frequently as when women think they've done something wrong. It's just that they think they've done fewer things wrong.”

The study's conclusions are interesting in the context of marriage. A fairly frequent source of conflict in my own marriage before the spousal unit and I had gotten used to each other's ways was my inability to understand how he could do things that - to me - seemed inconsiderate. I interpreted such acts as disrespectful and uncaring.

The interesting thing is that some of these things were, in fact, inconsiderate by both our standards (not only did I consider them to be inconsiderate but he would have considered them inconsiderate at the time, had I done the same thing to him). In all fairness, at this point I should admit that I did - and do to this day - things that are inconsiderate of him as well. The point here is not that one or the other of us can be inconsiderate at times, but that in addition to the things we both think are inconsiderate, there is also a considerable area where our sensibilities diverge.

The interesting thing to me is that over time, I have come to apologize less and he apologizes more. My sense is that I apologize less even though my List of Things That Are Inconsiderate is just as long as it ever was. I apologize less because over time I've learned that in certain cases, it's overkill - I'm trying to "right" a "wrong" that in his view doesn't even exist (though it does in my view). I don't gain anything by not apologizing to him when I've done something I think is wrong. In fact, I feel worse, because there's no outlet for my discomfort at failing to live up to my own standard. It's just that now that I have a better sense of when his threshold has been crossed, it seems best to me to deal with that discomfort on my own rather than inflicting it on him.

He, on the other hand, now apologizes more (even though his list of Inconsiderate Things hasn't changed all that much) because he has also learned that our respective offense thresholds differ, and thus that something he wouldn't view as "wrong" (if it were done to him) may still seem "wrong" to me if I'm on the receiving end.

This kind of mutual accommodation and adjustment - so long as it truly is mutual - doesn't seem like a bad thing to me. What changed my behavior was finally understanding how he sees the world (at least to some extent) and what changed his was understanding how I see it.

When you take a giant step back the obvious fact that men and women have different needs and see the world differently isn't exactly rocket science, but it never ceases to amaze me how easy it is for us (and I include myself in that) to persuade ourselves that the other person is unreasonable for seeing things differently than we do.

But what drives our differing offense thresholds? I can't help but wonder whether a higher female offense threshold acts as a counterweight to a higher male prospensity to dominance and aggression?

... Being on the alert for scoundrels is exhausting, and confronting those who violate social rules is potentially dangerous. But humans feel compelled to do it because without vigilance, fairness and cooperation break down. Gazzaniga cites experiments that show that individuals who take the risk of punishing cheaters enhance their own reputation within a group. (Here's a real-life example.)

Humans' sense of indignation is not just limited to violations against us. Even if you're able-bodied, think of how offended you feel when you see another able-bodied person pull into a handicapped parking spot. Most of us will just walk on, quietly irate, but a few will yell at the driver. These moral enforcers are vital to society. Frans de Waal writes that experiments with macaques show that if you remove the individuals who perform this policing function, hostilities increase among the entire band.

I find it fascinating that (so long as it's not overdone) the strategic taking of offense may actually reduce conflict in the long run. It's always been my intuitive sense that any relationship, whether it be a business relationship or a personal one, won't survive unless both parties can handle conflict and meet the other party halfway. Certainly it seems to have worked that way in my own marriage and in most successful marriages I've seen. Maybe marriages that don't work out, don't do so because the mutual accommodation part never takes place?

If that's so, does it happen because one party is too aggressive, because one party is too passive, or because one or both parties simply refuse to deal with conflict at all?

Discuss amongst yourownselves.

Posted by Cassandra at October 2, 2010 10:15 AM

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A professor I worked for barked at me for apologizing to the class for not having their exams graded within 7 days (I'd been at an out-of-town conference and there were 200 students in the class and I was the only TA). He growled that he did NOT understand why American women insisted on apologizing for everything (his wife is not American). I thought it was a Southern thing - smoothing feathers before they got ruffled - and then not noticing little inconsiderations for the sake of politeness and harmony. But nailing the offender on the big things. To me that is more Southern lady than "women" in general.

Posted by: LittleRed1 at October 2, 2010 02:13 PM

I thought the links at the bottom of the page -- on male and female brains -- were even more interesting than the original article. Reading the one on the male brain wasn't at all shocking, of course; I've had the experience, so it says what I'd expect it to say. Reading the one on the female brain, however, was a bit shocking. :)

Posted by: Grim at October 2, 2010 02:24 PM

Good post, Cassandra. I think that, in addition to the male/female differences, one has to take account of family of origin differences in the way conflict was handled. At an age now when many of my peers are suddenly getting divorced (kids off to college and parents look at each other and one leaves), I'm struck that in most cases the couples were at least apparently low conflict or one partner was fairly dominant. In disagreements, one person's wishes usually won out.

I could theorize, then, in line with your point at the end of this post that there was not enough working out of differences. If people don't meet half way (or 4/5 on something more important to one partner, and the reverse on something important to the other)they are likely to grow apart.

My spouse grew up in a household where his parents were very polite and everything was beautifully ordered but there was no love there. It ended in divorce. By contrast, my parents argued, negotiated, and things were rarely calm and orderly, but they remained in love for 52 years of marriage. Even when they were angry with each other, they had respect for the other as a worthy opponent...The opposite of love is indifference not anger, anyway.

As well as apologising, attitudes towards emotions are important. Both my spouse and I came from WASP families that frowned on the expression of emotion, but I spent years as a child in Latin America and trained to be a dancer at a stage school as a teen so still tend to be occasionally loud and dramatic in expressing my opinions. Because my parents argued and stayed together anyway, I am unafraid of conflict. This toughened me somewhat, so that I tend to be free with choice words in the heat of battle...er...differences of opinion.

So in this respect, I am probably closer to the male stereotype than the female: When I am aware of being in the wrong, I apologise, but I am not always aware. But because my spouse's parents divorced, he used to be deathly afraid of even the mildest disagreement (which kind of kitchen chair). We actually tend to agree on the big things (politics, the kids,the dog)
except religion.

I'm glad we don't have to be determined fit to marry and/or have kids, or I would have been turned down as hopelessly unfit. Perhaps when I am 80 I may be more mellow...

Posted by: retriever at October 2, 2010 09:44 PM

Why are WASPs so reserved?

Apart from wanting to keep the status quo unchanged that is.

Posted by: Ymarsakar at October 3, 2010 10:59 PM

"Discuss amongst yourownselves."

I'm sorry to hear about this. ;-)

Posted by: camojack at October 4, 2010 01:25 AM

Reading the one on the female brain, however, was a bit shocking. :)

What did you find shocking in it, Grim?

Posted by: Cassandra at October 4, 2010 02:13 AM

But nailing the offender on the big things. To me that is more Southern lady than "women" in general.

And Surn Ladies do it so *well*.

No one else on earth is capable of saying, "Well, bless your heart" in a way that can only be interpreted as "Go set yourself on fire and jump into a pool of gasoline."

Posted by: BillT at October 4, 2010 06:54 AM

I wonder if there's any breakdown in the data for working women vs. stay-at-home moms. My conjecture: Women who are raising children are more attuned to inconsiderate behavior because correcting it in children is a major part of child-rearing. Therefore, they become more attuned to what other people may consider inconsiderate of them. But in the work environment, you have to learn to ignore mild inconsiderations or else nothing will ever get done, so everyone becomes a bit insensitive to it.

Posted by: Cousin Dave at October 4, 2010 10:59 AM

Women who are raising children are more attuned to inconsiderate behavior because correcting it in children is a major part of child-rearing. Therefore, they become more attuned to what other people may consider inconsiderate of them. But in the work environment, you have to learn to ignore mild inconsiderations or else nothing will ever get done, so everyone becomes a bit insensitive to it.

Interesting idea, Dave.

I think I've become slightly less considerate of others now that I work FT. I have less control over who I interact with and consequently have had to grow a thicker skin.

On the other hand, I get annoyed and angry far more often than I did when I was at home - my patience is nowhere near what it used to be.

Posted by: Cassandra at October 4, 2010 11:52 AM

I think, Cass, it was only that I didn't realize how variable the experience was.

I have a few different modes I can recognize, but not many. My brain works differently if it is tired, if the body hasn't been fed in too long, has been fed more than a certain amount of alcohol, is affected by disease, or if it goes into fight/flight mode (and I'm not much of a runner). Otherwise, the experience is pretty much the same all the time.

If that article is correct, though, the female brain alters substantially even from day to day, leaving aside the major changes associated with pregnancy, menopause, etc.

Posted by: Grim at October 5, 2010 03:24 PM

I only have my own experience to draw upon. I apologize to my wife far more than she apologizes to me, but that's mostly due to an overdeveloped sense of guilt. If I am causing her pain or distress, regardless of why, I apologize. It is never my intent to cause her emotional (or physical for that matter) pain, so I apologize when it happens. Sometimes, I could be accused of over-apologizing (such as when we have an argument where, even if I believe I am right, I will still apologize for hurting her feelings by disagreeing with her). But for the most part, I apologize because I am sincerely sorry for hurting her.

I think I've asked for an apology exactly once in the 14 years we've been married. And I don't really consider myself slighted if I don't get one. I'm quite fine with a bit of emotional hurt IF I end up being right. Kind of a spiritual "rub some dirt on it" thing.

Posted by: MikeD at October 6, 2010 12:44 PM

[stepping up on the soapbox]

I am a Christian, and as far as I am concerned, saying 'I am sorry' is not enough. I know that a Christian is called to a higher standard of behavior than anyone else is. My standard is the 911 standard. We all know that [in America] that calling 911 on any phone will result in the dispatch of police, fire or an ambulance. Also, 911 refers to the events of September 11, 2001. So in American parlance, 911 means EMERGENCY.

I have a new meaning for the term. It refers to the 9 words/11 syllables that make for a RELATIONSHIP emergency. Those 9 words/11 syllables are: "I was wrong, I'm sorry, will you forgive me?". [go ahead, count the words/syllables]. I do not believe in magic, but these words have a nearly magical effect on relationships. They take the hard edge off of anger, and it can even go away completely.

Saying "I'm sorry" without accompanying "I was wrong" and the "will you forgive me" is merely stating that a feeling exists. Feelings come and go in a heartbeat. But to add to that feeling "I was wrong" is the admission of moral guilt apart from the feeling. Because a person who says "I am sorry" without the admission of guilt is just admitting a feeling without substance.

To go further and ask "will you forgive me" puts the moral burden on the other person. It causes him/her to morally evaluate whether or not the alleged infraction was worth the emotional bandwidth and time. It diffuses and blunts the anger she/he may have, and can cause real communication to occur.

This is especially true among intimates--especially husband and wife. Whoever wrote the line "Love means never having to say you're sorry" was promoting a lie from Hell itself. OF COURSE love means you have to say that you're sorry. You have to say it regularly and often, and mean it. And then you must forgive as you are being forgiven for all of your lies and moral trespasses that you perpetrate every day.

Methinks this to be excellent advice apart from religious preference. But any person who cannot say those 9 words is NOT someone who is a good marriage candidate for anyone.

Posted by: geekasaurus at October 7, 2010 05:58 AM