Martin Seager and Dr John Barry
1/ The careers and achievements of women in science, politics, business and education are publicly celebrated and promoted in the media, politics and academia.
2/ Boys have been falling behind girls in education since the 1980s. Today, for every 13 girls who enter university, only 10 boys do, but this is not the subject of public concern, media awareness or political action.
Some readers at this point will be experiencing “cognitive dissonance”, the uncomfortable feeling of trying to hold in one’s mind two incompatible ideas. In this case the incompatible ideas are:
1/ There is evidence that women are disadvantaged compared to men
2/ There is evidence that men are disadvantaged compared to women
Psychologists know that it’s common for people to harbour all sorts of conflicts, biases and distortions in their thinking. In relation to gender, psychologists have identified alpha bias (exaggerating or magnifying gender differences) and beta bias (ignoring or minimising gender differences). Seager & Barry (2019) have now developed a hypothesis relating to a third cognitive gender bias – gamma bias – which represents a combination of alpha and beta bias. Gamma bias occurs when one gender difference is minimised while simultaneously another is magnified.
The gamma bias phenomenon can be conceptualised as a symmetrical 2*2 matrix of cognitive distortions, the gender distortion matrix. The matrix below describes examples of gamma bias, where perceptions of men and women are differentially magnified (capital letters underlined) or minimised (lower case letters in italics).
Within the “celebration” cell, for example, the positive achievements of women are routinely celebrated as a gender issue. Within the same cell in the table, the positive actions and achievements of men are not similarly celebrated or gendered. For example, when a group of boys was recently rescued from dangerous underwater caves in Thailand, it was not reported as a gender issue or as a positive example of masculinity, despite the fact that all the rescuers were male.
In the “victimhood” cell, domestic violence against women, for example, is highlighted as a gender issue, whereas domestic violence against men is played down or completely ignored, despite the substantial numbers of male victims. When men make up the majority of victims (e.g. suicide, rough sleeping, deaths at work, addiction), the issues are not highlighted or portrayed as gender issues.
Within the “privilege” cell, male privileges are magnified in our media and politics as “patriarchy” whereas female privileges (for example relating to children and family life) are played down or ignored as gender issues.
The overall impact of gamma bias therefore, according to this hypothesis, is that masculinity is made to look significantly worse than it really is whilst simultaneously femininity is made to look significantly better than it really is.
What are the implications of the routine magnifying of the worst of men and minimising the worst of women? Well, for a start we might need to reconceptualise the ‘crisis of masculinity’ as a crisis in our attitudes towards men and masculinity.
Let’s make 2019 the year we wake up to the need to explore our conscious and unconscious biases against men. We hope that the concept of gamma bias and the gender distortion matrix will help people to think more clearly about gender issues.
Gamma bias is discussed at length in Seager & Barry’s forthcoming book chapter: Seager M and Barry JA (in press). Cognitive distortion in thinking about gender issues: Gamma bias and the gender distortion matrix, in Barry JA, Kingerlee R, Seager MJ and Sullivan L (Eds.) (2019). The Palgrave Handbook of Male Psychology and Mental Health. London: Palgrave Macmillan
About the authors
Martin is one of the founders of the Male Psychology Network and the Male Psychology Section of the British Psychological Society. He is a consultant clinical psychologist and an adult psychotherapist. He is a clinician, lecturer, campaigner, broadcaster and activist on mental health issues. He has been an honorary consultant psychologist with the Central London Samaritans since 2006 and is also a member of the Mental Health Advisory Board of the College of Medicine. He did a regular slot on mental health for BBC Essex Radio (2003-2007) and BBC Radio Five Live (2007-2009). He set up an advisory group for the last Labour government on mental health issues. He has been an honorary lecturer in psychological therapies at UEL, UCL and Essex University/Tavistock Clinic and has also presented at many international, national and regional conferences on a variety of themes relating to mental health and psychological well-being. Martin is an advisor to the Royal Foundation for issues around men’s mental health.
John is one of the founders of the Male Psychology Network and the Male Psychology Section of the British Psychological Society. After completing his PhD in psychological aspects of polycystic ovary syndrome, he joined University College London’s Institutefor Women’s Health at the UCL Medical School in 2011. Since then he has published over 60 papers in various peer-reviewed journals, including in international-standard journals in gynaecology, cardiology and ophthalmology. Prompted by the considerable suicide rates among men and the establishment’s inertia in dealing with men’s mental health problems, in 2011 John led an independent research programme investigating the mental health needs of men and boys. John specialises in research methods (especially surveys and questionnaire development) and statistical analysis (e.g. meta-analysis, meta-regression), currently practices clinical hypnosis on a part-time basis and is an honorary lecturer with the Dept of Psychology, University College London. John is an advisor to the Royal Foundation for issues around men’s mental health.