Gender, Cave People & an Apology for Psychology

If I have to hear another ‘it’s a throwback to cave people’ explanation to explain gender social roles, I’ll scream. In fact I do! Much to the dismay of people sitting in the same room.  It’s all the worse when it comes from people who should know better. I mean, we expect it from stand-up comedians but here’s an example of a  psychologist who should really know better even though s/he is speaking outside of her/his field of expertise (and appears to make a habit of it). The subject is computer games and gender.

Computer games are ideally suited to men we are informed because. . . wait for it. . .

‘[B]ack when they were cavemen, men had to focus on the animal they were trying to kill. If they were distracted by anything from a woman to their own emotions, they’d miss the target. The real appeal for men is escapism though, because they’re not as evolved to deal with emotions which is why they like games more than us’.

(It’s not clear whether the venerable ‘expert’ means that men like computer games more than they like women, or more than women like computer games. However it is clear that the use of the word ‘us’ clearly shows that the person is not speaking as a psychologist but is giving a personal opinion as a ‘not-man’)

It gets ‘better’. . .

‘Competition is important to men because it let’s them work out who’s “the best”, an instinct going back to the days when they had to prove to the cavewoman that they’d be superior providers for them’.

So where is the evidence for these sagely insights? Now I’m not aware that this particular expert has done any research whatsoever on why people enjoy computer games. The person in question doesn’t look quite old enough to be from Palaeolithic times, so it can’t be from personal experience. As for the evidence of gender roles in cave people, this largely arose from the views of a once male-dominated archaeology who often made the cardinal error of using modern-day Western living as a lens by which to view historical and cultural data. It wasn’t until the 1960s when female archaeologists had the opportunity to question the orthodox, androcentric view that an alternative view began to emerge.   The meat content of  cave people is most likely exaggerated. Some sources suggest that it was about 80% gathering (vegetarian), so those archaeological spear-like, in some instances, could just as well be scraping and digging implements. Meat was more likely a ‘special occasion’ thing which is why it appeared as paintings on cave walls. Meat consumption increased with agriculture. Plenty of sources now agree that there weren’t the super-defined gender roles of the 1950s. It’s certainly ridiculous to assume that ‘cave people’ society was based on lots of little semi-detached caves containing nuclear families with mummy sitting at home making apple sauce on the off chance that daddy comes home with a pig. It makes no sense! The societies were probably more cooperative and egalitarian with everyone ‘mucking in’.

The case for gender differences is massively overstated in popular sources (and a few academic ones). When gender differences are scrutinised in meta-analyses, taking into account confounding factors what invariably results are no differences or relatively small (statistically significant) differences. Although these are often reported as ‘significant’ in popular sources there is often a basic misunderstanding of what the word ‘significant’ means in the context of research. It means that it passes a statistical test. However, this does not necessarily translate into a real-world significance.  Furthermore, the differences that do occur can be diminished or eradicated by training. This suggests strongly that even these small gender differences are determined by social factors. Overall, the body of research on gender demonstrates that there is a greater difference within each gender than between them. It also shows that the similarities between the genders are far greater than their differences.

Whenever, ‘experts’ resort to the ‘cave person’ analogy, this is a substitute for considering the evidence. It’s a smokescreen.  It taps into a commonly held myth and therefore, on the surface, appears to ring true. Now we expect the host of ‘fakexperts‘ to resort to  ‘cavepeople’ analogies because many of them may well not be expert at interpreting research data or know where to find evidence-based resources. However, for the seemingly respectable psychologist, there really is no excuse for this kind of slap-dash, ‘say-the-first-thing-that-pops-into-your-head’ kind of laziness.  So the next time you hear cave people and gender used, uncritically, in the same sentence, question the credentials and the motives of the speaker (or writer). The same goes for the ‘Mars-Venus’ analogy. It’s just another smokescreen.

More often than not, the appearance of psychologists in the media are missed opportunities to communicate evidence-based psychology. Invariably,  what we have is not even an apology for psychology but  bull-shit based psychobabble and ‘gossipology’. So often the definition of a ‘celebrity’ psychologist is ‘someone who should know better’. We certainly deserve better!

Recommended Books on Gender:

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