Who Has More Nuanced Thinking?
How do you look at and think about the world? Do you normally
see situations and decisions as black and white, or are you likely
to see the shades of gray? For example, is it sometimes okay
to steal if the purpose is good enough? Can you accept that some
people are less able to know right from wrong than others? Is
a lake sometimes also a pond or sea or is it necessary that it
be strictly in one category? In other words, how nuanced is your
And who has more nuanced thinking, men or women? We'll get
to that in a moment.
I will interject my opinion here, based on a lifetime of thinking
both in black and white (when younger) and shades of gray. I
think that nuanced thinking is much more powerful than the alternative.
Things are not always as they appear, and the conceptual labels
we manipulate to arrive at logical conclusions are not always
accurate. We define concepts and can perhaps even reason perfectly
from them, but with imperfect results because reality is not
precisely captured in those concepts. In other words, between
the black and the white there is gray, and a lot of it. Failure
to recognize this limits the power of our minds. I will (repeatedly)
explain this in more detail, and with more examples, in other
articles. For now let's return to our question about gender differences
and look at what some of the latest science says.
Researchers found that if you are a woman you are more likely
to engage in nuanced thinking. Men are more likely to have set
categories for things and actions, and to think accordingly.
According to a recent article in Scientific American;
"Psychologists at the University of Warwick had men
and women judge how each of 50 objects fit into a certain categorywhether
it belonged, did not belong, or only partially (somewhat) belonged.
For example, is a cucumber a fruit? Is a horse a vehicle? After
making each judgment, people reported how confident they were
about their decision.
Men were more likely to see an object as fully belonging
or not belonging to a category, while women more often judged
that objects only partially belonged. The more intriguing finding,
though, was that men and women were equally confident about their
decisions. This means the gender difference was not due to men
simply being more certain or women more uncertain about their
judgments. Instead, it suggests men and women perceive the world
This may happen for a couple of reasons. One possibility
is that societal gender roles promote more absolute, black-and-white
views in men and more detailed, complex views in women. Traditionally,
most cultures have rewarded males for being decisive and proactive,
even if it means jumping to conclusions. In contrast, females
are socialized to be more thoughtful and receptive to others
views, even if it means being more self-critical."
The nature versus nurture part of this will probably be resolved
in time, but whatever the causes are, it does appear that women
are more nuanced in their thinking than men. That seems to suggest
that they are more likely to have an open mind. Now, if I'm right
that a bit of nuance and a more open mind makes for powerful
thinking, doesn't this suggest that we should see more women
around us who are recognized as great thinkers? Why don't we?
Perhaps little girls in our culture are not encouraged to
engage in discussions of philosophical or political theory, and
less likely than boys to be encouraged to develop their creative
problem solving skills, and so on. It's also possible that most
people just don't notice the women around them with powerful
minds. In a male-dominated culture it isn't surprising that men
gain more recognition for their ideas. Also, if we are taught
to value black-and-white thinking, we will value thinkers of
that sort more, and those happen to include more men according
to the research. In other words, we might not recognize many
good minds (in men or women) because we are trained to systematically
devalue nuanced thought as indecisive or weak.
When I was younger the thinker I admired most happened to
be a woman; Ayn Rand. But those of you who have read her books
know her philosophical thought was very black-and-white. She
allowed for no gray areas, and she had an explanation for everything.
In her novels her characters were all either good or evil, but
never something in-between. In her political thinking there was
only her way to do things, and she made it clear that
because of her rigorous logic she could not be wrong. As I grew
older I realized how limited her thinking was, how rarely she
challenged her own ideas to see if there were alternatives or
even just refinements to make. This was a great weakness in her
thought process, but ironically it may have also been a big part
of her popular success as a writer and philosopher.
I wonder now, after reading about the latest research, about
other women who lived during Rand's time? There had to be many
woman who explored great ideas in more open and probing ways,
but perhaps they were never encouraged to write down their thoughts,
or were never able to get published, in part because of prejudice,
and in part because they did not claim to know all of the exact
answers with certainty, as men more often did.
And by the way, a lake might also be a pond, and it could
be okay to steal if the purpose is good enough, and we can use
knowledge and even beliefs as provisional tools that are regularly
dropped in favor of better tools.