Why No Empathy for Men? MORAL TYPECASTING
I spent nearly 40 years as a psychotherapist working with traumatized men and women. Sometimes I would work with both husband and wife who had experienced some horrendous event like the death of a child, a house fire or some other nightmare. It was easy to see how the men would work hard to maintain their appearance of independence but just as easy to see that nearly everyone in their circle was totally disinterested in their emotional pain. This was contrasted with the rush to come to the woman’s emotional aid. People would flock to her offering support, asking about her feelings and wanting to hear her story. In bleak contrast they would go to the man and ask him how his wife was doing. It was so stark a difference I coined a phrase to describe it:
A woman’s pain is a call to action and a man’s pain is taboo.
I was confused by this. It simply didn’t make sense.
And that brings us to the fourth reason men and women live in very different worlds. Men tend to get a very different response to their emotional difficulties and now we have research that takes us a step closer to understanding the reasons for this. It is called moral typecasting.
Through the work of Kurt Gray and others we have learned that people in moral situations follow predictable patterns. Gray states that people instinctively perceive moral actions through a dyadic template. The dyad consists of one agentic person (the perpetrator) who does the action, either good or evil. The other in the dyad receives the action, that person has what they call patiency. Importantly, he found that agency and patiency are mutually exclusive. If you are seen as having agency you are unlikely to be seen as having patiency and vica versa. Gray found that those who were seen as having patiency were more likely to be seen as victims and get understanding and compassion. Those having patiency were assumed to experience greater pain, to be more worthy of help, and garner greater interest in being assisted. Those with agency were less likely to be seen as needing support and were also considered more “blameworthy” and deserving of punishment.
Then along comes Researcher Tania Reynolds who asks the important question of whether there is a gendered component to this? Are men more likely to be seen as having agency? Are women more likely to be seen as having patiency? Her research says yes to both. Reynolds uses some very creative research designs to come to her conclusions. One study showed the subjects a video of two different colored triangles. One of the triangles bumped the other in an aggressive manner. One of the questions she then asked was which triangle was the male and which was the female. Of course what she found was that most of the time people assumed the bumping triangle was a male. Throughout her studies she found the same result. People were more likely to see women as victims and men as agentic perpetrators. She even found that women’s patiency generalized to situations when the women were the actual perpetrators of evil and the women tended to receive understanding and compassion even though they were the perp! We have all seen the opposite of this where men are the actual victims but get very little support. Now we have a starting idea of why that is. This seems to be related to Gray’s idea of both patiency and agency being mutually exclusive.
How can we boil this down? Basically, women are more easily perceived as victims and deserving of support. Even when they actually act in an evil manner people still see them as needing and deserving support. Men are more easily perceived as having agency and get less compassion and understanding. Having agency makes the men more likely to be blamed and seen as deserving of punishment.
This should not shock anyone. We have seen this pattern before. The only difference is now we have some research to back up our observations. Sad but true.
What does this mean? It means that men, fueled by testosterone, who strive for agency and are pushed by the culture to obtain as much agency and independence as they can now face yet another universal impact: they are automatically seen as having more agency and therefore are seen as deserving less compassion. At the same time women and girls are seen more as having patiency and do not face the same sorts of indifference that the men and boys face. Instead the women face a world that shows them compassion for their difficulties and works hard to expose any problem they may face.
These Four Factors Work Together Forming A Web
Can you see how these things work together in a web that impacts men and the ways they act in the world? Can you also see that nearly everyone is blind to this? When someone says that sex differences are only due to socialization most nod their heads.
I hope you can see from these four factors that men face a very different world and are rarely acknowledged for this invisible struggle. Instead we get a culture and a psychological industry that shames men for their natural path and labels them toxic because they are not similar enough to women. The fallout from our cultural ignorance of the factors men face in the world is potent. We are living in a world where men are judged unfairly. Understanding these various factors that affect men, we can start to see why this unfair judgement exists.
Men are biologically geared to strive for status. They are pushed by the culture to compete and go as high in the male hierarchy as they can and be seen as independent and capable. They are denigrated if they fail in this effort. These things, the testosterone, the male hierarchy and precarious manhood each force men to pay a price for appearing in any way less than agentic and independent. This profoundly shapes men. Then men face the fact that they will get less compassion for their plight via moral typecasting. The saying that “men have it all” seems a bit off the mark.
It is certainly true that both sexes face hardships and difficulties but now we are starting to see that for a variety of reasons it is much easier to see the hardships faced by women and girls and much less likely that people will identify a man’s difficulties. We are primed to see women’s difficulties and not to see men’s. We are then primed to have compassion for women facing troubles but not have the same compassion for men. The point is that we are living in a world where men’s pain and needs are more likely to be ignored and everyone sees it as normal and perfectly all right. How about you?