Emotions, Gender and Surviving academia

Emotions are in vogue in philosophy these days.  I’ve been piling through some of the literature and I keep seeing references to the “fight or flight” response that supposedly all humans feel when they are stressed and angry.   Unfortunately, that idea has been seriously challenged.  Rather, as many of you may know, and as a number of researchers have suggested, there’s also a “tend and befriend” response that is more often a female response.

The idea that there’s a “tend and befriend” response draws on the idea that human beings have an instinct for tending infants and a need for friends.  I think the idea originates most explicitly in Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s 1999 book, Mother Nature.  According to her, the length of the period of helplessness human infants display means that they need a lot of tending, more than one person alone can do.  So the care-taking needs a group of friends.

Another  often quote source is: Taylor, S. E., Klein, L. C., Lewis, B. P., Gruenewald, T. L., Gurung, R. A. R., & Updegraff, J. A. (2000). Biobehavioral responses to stress in females: Tend-and-befriend, not fight-or-flight. Psychological Review, 107, 411 – 429.

I suspect that the non-feminist philosophical literature** on emotion may lack the idea that there can be gender differences in emotions.  If anyone has evidence to the contrary, please let me know.  As it is, I think that at the conference where I’m supposed to comment on a paper on theories of emotion, I may remark that it is no surprise that the literature is innocent of the idea that there could be such gender differences!

There are very serious implications, of course, to being ignorant of how extensive gender differences can be.  One surprising difference that is suggested by some of the literature is that put-downs from a dominant member of the society can affect men and women quite differently.  In particular, men’s performances improve with such put-downs, while women’s degrade.

Now just suppose what might happen if you were in a field where dominant people sometimes  engaged in putting down the “lower” students and early profs.   Such practices would favor the men, perhaps considerably.

**Perhaps particularly the sort that gets into the really important journals.  :)

14 thoughts on “Emotions, Gender and Surviving academia

  1. Let me add that I meant to cite the early literature on the tend and befriend response. There’s quite a bit since the earlier work. Shelley Taylor in fact has a bood out on the topic, but I see complaints that it’s innocent of feminist thought.

  2. One surprising difference that is suggested by some of the literature is that put-downs from a dominant member of the society can affect men and women quite differently. In particular, men’s performances improve with such put-downs, while women’s degrade.

    I recall one put down, at a conference, where the speaker (female) utterly dismissed my concerns, in such a way that although I held it together until the end of the session, I retreated to my room in tears. A lovely senior academic (female) later mentioned it to me, saying that she had thought that it was unacceptable.

    It was one of many things that drove me out of the academy.

  3. Deborah, I’m so sorry to hear that. You are certainly not alone, and looking at the quote you’ve give from the blog, I am not sure why I said the difference was surprising. It probably is unsurprising. Perhaps I meant ‘important.’ In any case, it is quite awful that people can drive others from the profession. Though I’m sorry to hear about your distress, let me recognize that you might well be in a much better place.

    On a more minor scale, I nearly left a conference, since I was so sick of being targeted as the mad woman who escaped from the attic. And the bad experience did start with a woman saying “But [jj] you just don’t understand.” It’s an interesting approach to someone who tries to disagree with a dogma.

  4. Thanks for this post, jj; I seem to remember the ‘tend and befriend’ talked about inconnection with Hrdy’s book, but not anywhere else. It’s good to know that there’s a more extensive field of research on this very subject to start looking into.

  5. Thanks, Brandon. I put “tend and befriend” into a search engine – PsyInfo?? – and found a number of articles. I expect google scholar would yield quite a few.

    It’s pretty clear too that the literature does recognize that men tend to children and befriend. Someone comments that the research is distorted because it started with studies of male rats. If that’s so, it might be a nice example of research that continues because researchers find it fits how they react. (The researcher as male rat.)

    I was very surprised to see one range of universal, basic emotions described in the paper I’m commenting on that I’m pretty sure I’ve never experienced. It is almost beyond my imagination, and I always thought the emotion name went along with another range of reactions, which in fact it often does, according to the literature.

  6. Interesting – I’ve only ever heard of “tend and befriend” in connection with Shelley Taylor’s work, not Dr. Hrdy’s. Discipline insularity at work again. If I’m remembering correctly, Taylor hypothesized that the biological basis of stress reduction from care-taking was the release of oxytocin into the bloodstream. I’m not a biologist, so I don’t know for sure, but I have the impression that oxytocin is almost entirely associated with adult women of child-bearing years. I hope that “tend and befriend” can be found to work for men and children as well. I suspect it does, or can, but this probably means it’s not just related to oxytocin.

  7. Re: Tending, Befriending, and Mending

    I think the theory of “tend and befriend” gaining popularity in psychology these days may stem from a white, upper middle class bias prevalent in academia. Perhaps my experiences growing up marginalized – class and race – are anecdotal, but the women in my community were exceptionally tough. They did not cry when berated and they chose to fight when provoked. Maybe then, “tend and befriend” is not an inherent trait in humans, but one fostered or a product of temperament. Just a thought.

  8. Aloyalreader; one criticism of Taylor’s work is that she doesn’t incorporate feminist analyses, which might well add that environment can make a huge difference in how women live their lives. So I think your point reflects an important objection. I think another thing to think about is how many women may fight to protect a child, and, of course, what one sees as needing protection can go well beyond one’s own children.

    That said, the research about the differences between men and women responding to condescending criticism from a ‘superior’ looked at low ranked women in a corporation, I think.

    lga, I had a quick google on oxytocin and some researchers were claiming it can be found in low amounts in men. I’m afraid I have no idea what’s right here. Men clearly can tend, and perhaps they do it without oxytocin. There’s lot of anecdotal evidence that men don’t share much personal stuff with other men, and it would be fascinating if that was linked in some way to low or no oxytocin.

    I think one can buy nasal oxytocin inhalers.

  9. Thank you for the article, I have transalted it into spanish and have sent it all over to my friends…
    If anyones want the translation I´ll bemore than happy to share!

  10. tabi, thank you. It would be great to hear if they find anything very helpful in it.

    Added: Or, perhaps, if they object to some of it.

  11. The idea that men respond well to put downs I have generally fount to at best be unrepresentative or misguided. Individuals respond differently to different forms of “encouragement.” I would be surprised if biological differences accounted for a larger variation than sociological factors.

  12. Kandela, there are a lot of issues here. It wasn’t that the men responded well; they did get angry, but they appear to have improved their work as a result. This was, of course, a very limited sample; also, I don’t think anything suggests it was biology, but that’s a bit tricky. I’m inclined to think there are some basic emotions we share with other animals, but that language and culture make a huge and fundamental difference. That perspective underwrites a tentative generalizing that a constructionist approach wouldn’t.

  13. JJ,

    Fair enough. I’d be interested to know how much variation there was in the work improvement of the male sample. I can think of some pretty prominent examples of men who respond much better to encouragement than to criticism, among them a current Formula 1 driver, Filipe Massa, is well known for needing to be “managed” by his team.

    On a slightly different topic. I’ve read that men are more prone to mental illnesses like depression later in life because they don’t form as many close friendships as women. I’ve also heard it theorised that married men live longer because having a wife means they have an emotional outlet that can reduce their loneliness and stress. Whereas this wasn’t critical for women because they formed much stronger relationships with others and so didn’t rely on their spouse. This all seems to lend support to the hypothesis that tend and befriend responses are more prevalent in women. The interesting thing for me is, I think it also indicates that the rarity of this behaviour in men is having a negative impact on them. One might then infer that the lack of these bonding skills in men is not a biologically driven state, and must therefore be cultural. However, even if it is logical, there are quite a few ‘ifs’ in my line of reasoning.

  14. kandela, I don’t know the details of the study, unfortunately. But you must be right about individual variation, etc. I’ve wondered whether the old age of men in more collectivist societies isn’t much better and, if so, why that is. So much in the way of the ‘just so’ stories about early human beings seems to make them out to be proto-individualistic capitalists, but the life of the acquisitive loner has huge draw backs.

    In any case, sad to say, it isn’t clear evolution was much concerned about what happened after one stops reproducing. In fact, reproductive years for women aren’t all that great if left to nature. One could find it all depressing, but perhaps that’s just the effects of our Memorial Day.

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