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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 thinking?

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 category—whether 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 differently.

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.


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