Why Men and Women Fight, Part 1: How We Know Things

Men and women fight like cats and dogs, because, well, we are like cats and dogs. We’re just very different animals, so says the research. We experience reality in fundamentally different ways, probably resulting from both nature (body, brain and hormone differences) and nurture (boys and girls are treated differently from birth). Science is still trying to figure all this out, though, so this blog entry is about what is, not about why it is that way.

What we do know is that what we observe. Men tend to understand reality primarily from a detached, objective, logical viewpoint. Women tend to experience reality from a connected, intuitive, emotional viewpoint. Traditionally and empirically, the latter way of knowing has been considered not just different, but inferior in Western cultures. Modern science requires hard facts, not feelings, about how things work, so women’s ways of knowing confounds the empirical method. Or maybe it doesn’t.

Science is now engaging in empirical testing about the voracity of intuitive epistemology, and finding that both ways of knowing can be equally productive…and equally questionable. Psychological research shows that men and women come to know what they know by a different set of stages.

In the 1960s, psychologist William Perry studied (primarily) male college students and identified four stages by which his subjects arrived at conclusions about reality (Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years, 1968). In the first stage, duality, black and white thinking rules the day. Authority figures who give facts and answers are assumed to be correct.

In Stage Two, unacceptable multiplicity, it becomes clear that authority figures don’t agree, so one’s own authority figures are assumed correct and the rest wrong or incompetent. Black and white thinking still rules.

In Stage Three, acceptable multiplicity, gray becomes an option, with the individual’s own subjective interpretation of reality being the right one for the individual, while others are allowed to have their own opinions.

In Stage Four, relativism, the individual makes peace with conflicting opinions, and becomes much less tied to absolutes, although there is an special appreciation for the informed opinion, one that is backed by a reasonable explanation, arrived upon by a constructed intellectual approach.

Some 20 years after Perry published his research, a group of female psychologists conducted similar research on females, which identified a different progression of epistemological development. Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule (Women’s Ways of Knowing, 1986) found that women don’t necessarily follow the pattern toward knowledge that Perry identified for males. Both men and women start and end at roughly the same place—starting with black and white ways of knowing (what Belenky et al. called received knowledge) and ending with an understanding that reality is less precise and objective than it seemed at first, so adopting both objective and subjective ways of knowing becomes important (called constructed knowledge).

Even the first stage is somewhat different for men than for women, Belenky et al. found. Males, from the start, tend to identify themselves as authority figures, viewing the world through an “us/them” perspective, while females tend to see others as authority figures, and themselves as receiving the right way of seeing things.

In the second stage, subjective knowledge, truth is seen as personal, private, subjective, and intuitive. There are still absolutes, but they now arise from within. At this stage, females sometimes make themselves the authority, with empirical methodology taking a back seat to their own intuition.

In the third stage, procedural knowledge, women add objective and rational ways of knowing (separate knowing) to their epistemology, adopting the scientific method as another way of discovering truth. Many women, in this stage, however, begin to rely on empathy (connected knowing) as much as anything as a way to understand reality. Separate knowing relies on impartial but adversarial debate while connected knowing relies on mutual trust and dialogue.

In the fourth stage, constructed knowledge, women try to reconcile the opposing epistemological strategies of exploring facts and experiencing feelings. They try to blend objective, scientific and rational with subjective, intuitive and emotional. Women at this stage have reached the conclusion that all knowledge is constructed, fashioned, and that the knower is an integral part of the context of what becomes known.

That Perry’s model was decidedly absent of intuition and empathy explains, at least in part, why the battle of the sexes is still so hot. Most men simply don’t tend to consider feelings, empathy, trust or personal relationships in their quest for knowledge, and they see the need to as inferior. They remain detached, rather than connected; they come as skeptics, not as believers. Most women, on the other hand, can’t trust a reality that disparages a method that seems to them as natural and necessary as air. No wonder men and women become exasperated with each other! They don’t see the epistemology of the other as legitimate or trustworthy!

You’d think that the maturity and broader perspective that both sexes eventually adopt, which uses data of all kinds to understand and interpret reality, would allow them to see and appreciate the viewpoint of the other. If only….

More tomorrow….


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