An article published in this week’s issue of The Week (March 23, 2012) claims to have explained “why women seek conflict.” I didn’t know until I read this article that women did, in fact, seek conflict. Women’s overwhelming marital and career strife can often be boiled down to an aversion to conflict; when their overbearing husbands or bosses criticize them or deny them the authority they deserve, preferring to keep relationships smooth, women back down and simmer quietly inside rather than correct their superiors-by-default.
However, according to The Week, and “researchers,” “women tend to want to engage around conflict,” while “men…find conflict threatening.” I am sure that this research was motivated by the innumerable cases of unruly women in bars breaking bottles over each other’s heads and wrecking the furniture, or perhaps the rising incidence of women getting out of their cars at stop lights to threaten the driver in the next lane who didn’t get out of the way fast enough. On the other hand, it could simply be the many cases of domestic violence wherein women, in their desperate need for conflict, pester and nag their poor peace loving husbands into a fit of rage, so that they will, most unwillingly, beat, rape and abuse their wives into an ecstasy of emotional rapture. This one must certainly have been the motivation.
The study consisted of filming 156 couples interacting with each other and then reviewing the films with the man and the woman in the relationship and asking them to describe their feelings. Their finding was that women felt more secure and validated when their men were distressed. There are a number of problems with this study and the conclusions it claims to achieve. The most basic are simple math: 156 is a very small sample. Maybe with a good theoretical model built on well established behavioral findings, one might be able to draw conclusions from 156 observations, but generally speaking, good data sets should have thousands of observations in order to draw reliable conclusions.
Supposing, however, that the sample size was large enough that the statistics measured were robust, we next must face the problem of causality. Most periodicals that publish on academic findings make the error of implied causality. Put simply, we hear a lot of language that says things like “eating red meat increases your risk for heart disease.” What this means is that if you are a data point in a research project and your data point gets put in the bin of other data points that all eat red meat, then that same bin would be full of a lot of data points who have heart disease. The key here is that it doesn’t mean that you will have heart disease. That’s because red meat doesn’t cause heart disease, but its consumption is correlated with heart disease. A less reported correlation is with firemen and fires. Whenever you see a building on fire, you tend to see firemen running about. More firemen running about is correlated with more fires, but no one would say that firemen cause fires.
In this study, we face the same difficulty of establishing causality. We know that firemen don’t cause fires because we know that we build fire stations in order to respond to the fires, that is, we have a theoretical model explaining why the firemen and the fires appear at the same times, so we know which causes which. However, in the study on conflict, women’s feelings of security were correlated with their men being distressed, but which caused which, assuming there even exists a causal relationship. One possibility, one that many divorced women will happily ascribe to, is that conflict arises in a relationship when the party who is usually submissive asserts her opinion. A woman feeling more confident and validated in her point of view is more willing to stand her ground. This upset of the typical balance of power leads to conflict as men who are not accustomed to being stood up to must reassess their position, which leads to distress. In this perfectly plausible story, women are indifferent to conflict, but their positive feelings about themselves or their relationship initiate conflict which leads to the correlation.
Another explanation could be that men do not care for their women until they scream — the squeaky wheel explanation. Men are often more assertive about their desires and more willing to fulfill their own needs without checking in with their women or friends whereas women tend to consider more how the whole group will be affected by her decision. Thus, a woman is likely to quietly sacrifice her own needs if she feels that the relationship as a whole will benefit while men are more likely to sacrifice a woman’s needs if she doesn’t make a big stink about it. Thus, a woman feels ignored and uncared for in the status quo and the only times she receives attention from her man is when she puts on a show. In this case the woman certainly is seeking conflict, but the explanation is not that the conflict makes her feel good, or that she has some intrinsic pleasure from fighting, as the article would suggest, the explanation is that the behavior is encouraged by her mate. This is the exact same social process that leads to whiny children, too.
Finally, the article suggests that men ought to be more tolerant of women’s inherent need for conflict while women should be more understanding of men’s desire for peace. Pardon me while I cry shenanigans here. This implication on the surface sounds like science is finding answers for our every day problems, but lets look a little closer. Remember that time when you found yourself sitting down reading the Sunday paper and thinking “Gee, there are so many women in the world with insatiable needs for conflict!”? Right. Thought not. The article begins by creating the idea that it is common knowledge that women desire conflict. It then goes on to use this false presumption to motivate a statistically weak study on relationships that supposedly demonstrates this “fact.” Finally, the language that it uses to describe its solution to this invented problem describes women as hysterical, emotionally warped creatures that are more something that we as society have to deal with than something we would want to be around. At the same time, the men in the study are described as fundamentally harmless, peace loving creatures — both traits that we as a society value in others.
So what is this really about? This article is a devious attempt at using bad science to further vilify the feminine in our society. It’s a really good strategy, too. Because if our society holds anything more sacred that the Pope, it’s science. Science never lies.