For Men Only by Shaunti and Jeff Feldhahn is missing evolutionary biology, behavioral economics, and psychology

For Men Only promises “A Straightforward Guide to the Inner Lives of Women,” but it’s missing any acknowledgment of the vast amount of research that shows:

  • We don’t know what we really want.
  • What we say or think we want often doesn’t match how we behave.
  • We behave different ways at different times and places.

For_men_onlyThe book would benefit from close study of work by Dan Ariely and Daniel Kahneman. For most guys, it’s worth reading, but reading skeptically. I say it’s worth reading because much of the book, especially regarding emotional engagement, matches my mistakes.

The writers, for example, say that “Women tend to process things by talking them through. [. . . while ] Men, however, tend to process things by thinking them through, and not saying anything until they full understand what they are thinking.” That is, on average, true in my experience, and it took a lot of trial and error—and more error—to realize that talking without knowing why one is talking isn’t necessarily a sign of intellectual fatuousness or weakness. It’s a sign that a lot of women are simply “processing,” to use the Feldhahns’s language.

Elsewhere, the Feldhahns say that “When our wife or girlfriend is upset, we do what we would do with other guys: We give her space to work things out. But with very few exceptions, when women are upset they don’t want space. They want a hug.” Space increases feelings of loneliness, not feelings of competence and control. They also say that women often don’t necessarily want solutions to emotional problems—they want empathy, and a listener:

She just wants you to listen = she does want and need you to understand how she’s feeling about the problem. ‘It‘ = an emotional problem. This listening rule does not apply to technical conundrums.

To me, this makes no sense: why share a problem unless you want it resolved? But I’ve learned the the hard way that their reading is correct in many situations, and I’ve tended to discount emotions in favor of trying to solve problems. When this strategy failed, or elicited tears from girls, I would wonder what the fuck is the matter. I mean, when I have problems, I want them fixed, right? But, as the Feldhahns point out, I’m missing that the problem isn’t the problem—it’s a placeholder, in many situations, for something else. I failed to read the situation metaphorically.

The Feldhahns also point out that men overestimate the need to be seen as a “provider” and earn money, while underestimating the need for emotional and sexual closeness (for a literary example of this, pay close attention to the portrayal of Matt French in Megan Abbott’s novel Dare Me; he spends his life working, or worrying about work, in order to buy a big, crappy house, and neglects his wife to the point that she starts sleeping with another guy who probably makes less money but is sexy and available). Notice the words “overestimate” and “underestimate:” money and ambition matter, but not as much as many men think. The Feldhahns say, “For her, ’emotional security’ matters most: feeling emotionally connected and close to you, and knowing that you are there for her no matter what. Sure, providing financially is appreciated, but for most women it’s nowhere near the top of the list.” Clearly Jeff Feldhahn hasn’t dated some of the cold fish I have, but we’ll leave those stories aside.

From what I can discern, those insights are correct, even if the process that led to those insights is bogus, or at least not optimal. The authors say, “Besides conducting hundreds of in-person interviews, we gathered huge amounts of anecdotal information at dozens of women’s events where Feldhahn was presenting materials from For Women Only.” What people say they want and what they actually do often differ severely, as anyone who has ever listened to girls complain about the “assholes” they sleep with, compared with the “nice guys” they don’t, can attest. But my favorite study on the topic of the discrepancy between what people state in various situations is Alexander and Fisher’s “Truth and consequences: Using the bogus pipeline to examine sex differences in self‐reported sexuality:”

Men report more permissive sexual attitudes and behavior than do women. This experiment tested whether these differences might result from false accommodation to gender norms (distorted reporting consistent with gender stereotypes). Participants completed questionnaires under three conditions. Sex differences in self-reported sexual behavior were negligible in a bogus pipeline condition in which participants believed lying could be detected [meaning that “participants are attached to a non-functioning polygraph and are led to believe that dishonest answers given during an interview or on a survey can be detected by the machine” (28)], moderate in an anonymous condition [where participants don’t believe their answers will be revealed at all], and greatest in an exposure threat condition in which the experimenter could potentially view participants’ responses. This pattern was clearest for behaviors considered less acceptable for women than men (e.g., masturbation, exposure to hardcore & softcore erotica). Results suggest that some sex differences in self-reported sexual behavior reflect responses influenced by normative expectations for men and women

In other words, what people say about their sexual habits and beliefs depend in part on who is listening and how the speaker believes what they say will be interpreted. Given that fact, “in-person interviews” and “anecdotal information at women’s events” are arguably the worst way one could gather data on what women “really” want. Every time the Feldhahns say things like, “70 percent of the women said they’d rather their husband take a lower-paying job that would require financial sacrifices if it allowed more family time” (emphasis added) I wanted to say, “they only say that.”

Beyond the issue of what people say in different contexts, there’s an issue about what people do in different states of mind. In Dan Ariely and George Loewenstein’s paper “The heat of the moment: the effect of sexual arousal on sexual decision making,” the authors show that college-aged guys in a “cold” state systematically underestimate their likely sexual preferences and acts when they are in a “hot” state (which the experimenters elicit through showing each individual man porn, encouraging him to masturbate, and then asking the same set of questions). In Predictably Irrational, Ariely describes the difficult of conducting that experiment in the first place because of his university’s human-subjects board, and he speculates that getting permission to operate the same experiment with female subjects would be more difficult still.

The women the Feldhahns speak to are, presumably, in a cold state. What they say they want at that moment, speaking to somewhat high-status writers, may or may not bear any relation to what they want in hot states, or what they want in the private sphere that still exists between their ears. We are all hypocrites, but some of us are better at acknowledging it, and incorporating that knowledge into our thinking, than others.

Perhaps the second-best romantic advice I’ve ever heard is simple: “Don’t pay any attention to what she says—just look at what she does.” (The first-best is “The worst thing she can say is ‘no.'” Alter the gender pronouns to fit your preferences, as needed.) The Feldhahns are paying a lot of attention to what she says.

Jeff also plays himself off as stupid, like many men: “I doubted that a woman could ever be understood. Compared to other complex matters—like the tides, say, or how to figure a baseball player’s ERA—women seemed unknowable. Random even.” That’s because he’s either a) an idiot or b) has bought into large-scale cultural nonsense. Women can be understood. Evolutionary biology is a good place to start: take a look at Geoffrey Miller’s The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature, then the new introduction to Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s The Woman That Never Evolved, then Thornhill and Gangestad’s The Evolutionary Biology of Human Female Sexuality. All of them explain a lot about the pressures women feel, and, by extension, the pressures men feel in response (the pressures men and women feel are, of course, a feedback loop, with one side “responding” to the other).

Individual preferences can’t be understood based on group identification, because individual preferences can vary substantially, but understanding the basic evolutionary and cultural pressures operating on each sex will show why many people behave the way they do. Those “cultural pressures” I mentioned in the previous sentence are also important, and books like Neil Strauss’s The Game discuss them.

Let me return to Hrdy for a moment. In describing her path to the book, she says:

Competition between females is documented for every well-studied species of primate save one: our own. Once we leave the scientific realm, of course, and consider history, literature, and, for many of us, personal experience, examples of highly competitive, manipulative, and even murderous females flock to mind.

Competition between human females also exists—as “history, literature, and [. . .] personal experience” show us (we should get out of the lab and into culture if we’re going to study humans)—but it tends to exist along different dimensions than male competition. That’s why men tend not to notice it. In addition, male scientists suffer a failure of imagination, as Hrdy elegantly puts it: “The history of our knowledge about primate infanticide is in many ways a parable for the biases and fallibility that plague observational sciences: we discount the unimaginable and fail to see what we do not expect.”

Jeff doesn’t understand women because he doesn’t understand that women are also under competitive pressure, though he probably doesn’t realize what he doesn’t understand. Instead of thinking that women are “Random even,” he should be asking: What incentives operate on women that don’t on men? What’s it like to be female in our society? How can I learn more? He’s showing an empathy deficit and a research deficit.

Why are the authors ignorant about the vast literature on deception? They’re not researchers, and they don’t evince any interest in research, which is a major weakness. They’re may be inclined to massage their readers’ prejudice instead of challenging those views. They may also not want to know better, which I say because they say that “This book holds to a biblical world view. [. . . ] because Feldhahn and I view life through our Christian faith, we have seen that these findings are consistent with biblical principles.” In modern America, ensuring that “findings are consistent with biblical principles” is a code-phrase for militant, pointless ignorance. This is where I should point out that intellectual rigor and sophistication can (and should) co-exist with religious belief, but I don’t have the energy for culture-war crap.

The authors also sometimes evade important issues altogether, as their strategic use of passive voice shows here: “In this culture, women are not being protected emotionally. They are being humiliated.” Women are not being “protected emotionally” by who or what? “They are being humiliated” by who or what? As I tell students, cultures don’t just emerge from some amorphous cloud: they’re the result of aggregated individual decisions. Who should be doing the protecting? What does humiliation mean here? It’s hard to emotionally humiliate someone without their consent. This idea is simply asserted, and it’s asserted in a way that removes important information.

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