by Dr Rebecca Owens & Dr Helen Driscoll, University of Sunderland
[Editor’s note: in our support of men and masculinity, the Male Psychology Section has occasionally been criticised for not being feminist enough e.g. a website discussed in a previous blog].
We find that a lot of people do not really understand evolutionary approaches to studying human behaviour – often people are absolutely against it. Evolutionary psychology is an approach to understanding human behaviour – not an area of study, therefore it does not take away anything from any other area of study – it only seeks to enlighten that area.
We believe that the crux of some of the points raised by those who opposed the Male Psychology Section comes from a failure to consider the ultimate (evolutionary) perspective, leading to a skewed perspective on the relative importance of the Section, and its potential impact.
The benefit of incorporating evolutionary approaches has been seen in research on aggression. Typically, men are seen as more aggressive than women. However, an evolutionary perspective allows us to see that sex differences in aggression depend on the form of aggression and the target. For example, decades of research from a family conflict perspective suggests sex symmetry in perpetration of intimate partner violence, and some research indicates that women are more likely to engage in indirect aggression, whereas men are more likely to engage in direct aggression. This is not to say that all women engage in indirect aggression, and all men engage in direct aggression, but an evolutionary perspective has enabled us to understand sex differences in aggression in terms of selection for the male taste for risk (enabling competition for reproductive resources) and female desistance from direct aggression due to the risk posed to offspring in the ancestral environment as a result of maternal injury or death.
Another comment made by the opponents of a Male Psychology Section is that a feminist approach to masculinity will help men more, and therefore the Male Psychology Section is not needed. To us, this seems to entirely overlook an evolutionary perspective. We have evolved cognitive architecture that predisposes us to act in certain ways, directs our attention to certain things and promotes us to behave in particular ways. That is not to say that we are biologically determined to behave in these ways – only that we are influenced to in culturally sensitive ways. A feminist approach may well be helpful, but it seems to us that it would be like fighting against the tide in many ways. Men and women, generally, show some differences in the way we think and behave, therefore any solutions or interventions cannot be a ‘one size fits all’ for men and women. Undoubtedly for some people a feminist approach will work best – but for many others the approach advocated by the Male Psychology Section will work best, and these people are no less deserving or in need of help and intervention. People are diverse, and we need diverse approaches to helping them.
Another complaint raised is the concern that women have been disproportionately disadvantaged in comparison to men throughout history. Again, we would encourage consideration of this claim through an evolutionary lens. History is told by ‘the winners’ – those who are dominant at the time. We think back through history and we think of powerful male rulers, and the sometimes despicable ways women have been treated throughout history, often in times of male monarchs. However, if we dig a little deeper, we see that, consistent with an evolutionary perspective, it is actually a minority of men who have ruled this way, and a lot of men have also been treated despicably. Throughout history, it is men who have fought in wars, usually under the orders of ruling men, and men still outnumber women in the army.
A related point here is gender stereotypes. Undoubtedly, sociocultural factors have contributed to gender stereotypical roles, for example, strong, dominant men and weak, passive women. However, we rarely stop to consider the origin of these stereotypes. If we look at gender stereotypes through an evolutionary lens, we can see their origins in terms of the sex-specific selection pressures acting on men and women – even if they have been impacted by sociocultural factors. However, what we must avoid is the assumption that areas where sex differences exist must be made equal – this is a fallacy. Should we prevent men who want to join the army from doing so and force women to join who do not want to do so? Do we stop incarcerating men and push the incarceration of women, just to even up the numbers? These are proximate solutions to ultimate problems, which need to be managed equitably – not equally. Acknowledging and understanding sex differences does not divert resources away from helping women, or undermine their suffering – highlighting the sex difference and adjusting the base point of enquiry so it is equitable can only serve to enhance the research, support, and interventions put in place.
Thirty years ago the Psychology of Women Section was founded. Promoting research into and awareness of male psychology in no way deflects resources or attention from women’s psychology – both areas deserve to be fully explored. We are all essentially a community of researchers chipping away at our own little sections to try and understand the bigger picture of the human condition. We could never incorporate all of the variation and perspectives into every piece of research completely – that is research design basics – but we can be mindful of the bigger picture. Stepping back and appreciating the ultimate perspective will help all of us.
About the authors
Dr Helen Driscoll is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Sunderland. She gained her BSc (Hons) Psychology degree from Newcastle University and PhD in Psychology from Durham University. Helen is a Chartered Psychologist and a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. Her PhD examined sex differences in intrasexual aggression and intimate partner violence from an evolutionary perspective. Helen’s current research interests include sexual behaviour and sexuality, male psychology, dark personality and adult play.