Harming Men

Sometimes I wish it was okay for a paper to have an introduction that goes “Here’s a weird phenomenon. Let’s see if we can pin it down in the lab!”

If that had been possible, the recent paper Moral Chivalry by Oriel FeldmanHall &co. could have gone from the first two sentences of their intriguing introduction…

A culturally pervasive social norm is the chivalrous idea that women should be protected from harm. This is exemplified by “women and children first”—a historical maritime code of conduct stating that when there is a life-threatening situation, those who are more vulnerable should be saved first (Kipling, 1907).

…straight to their first study. “So, will people actually endorse saving women over men, and harm men more than women?!”

And as it turns out, in the 4-5-6ish studies of the paper, it certainly looks like they will.

  • In a forced choice decision, participants opted to push a man rather than a woman in front of a runaway trolley in the classic footbridge dilemma (Study 1A)
  • When rating (on a 10-point scale) their willingness to push a man/woman/bystander in front of a trolley (Study 1B), participants were more willing to push a gender-unspecified bystander than a woman or a man (and maybe less willing to push a woman than a man?)
  • When participating in a Pain vs. Gain study (having to trade a gain for self against pain for someone else), participants opted for more gain for themselves when the corresponding (greater amount of) pain was delivered to a man rather than to a woman (Study 2)
  • The above finding replicated in an online version of the same Pain vs. Gain task (see supplemental materials for Study 4)
  • When participants were given information about a hypothetical Pain vs. Gain task (Study 3A), and then asked to predict the results when a man vs. a woman would be the target of the pain, participants predicted that people would keep more money when a man was the target (i.e. they predicted the finding of Study 2, that people deliver more pain to a man than to a woman)
  • In the same study, participants also reported that according to societal norms, it is less fair to harm a woman than a man; woman are more sensitive to pain than are men, and it is less acceptable to harm a woman than a man for money. Further, when asked “On a sinking ship who should you save first?”, most people said there should be “no order”, a large chunk of people said women first, and one person said men first.

There were a couple of other studies as well, and additional aspects to the studies above – but you should just go and read the whole thing for yourself! (An extra thing I love about this study is that it is open access.)

I’m summarizing it (briefly) today because it just came out in SPPS – but it was available online a little while ago, and I brought it to our weekly journal club to discuss. There were (are) three parts to my interest in this study:

  1. I study war. War involves soldiers. Soldiers are (still) overwhelmingly men. How would things be different if more of them were women?
  2. Many of the researchers in our journal club are interested in, and concerned about, domestic violence. In Australia, women are over-represented among the grim statistics of people murdered by their intimate partner. Men, on the other hand, are over-represented among the grim statistics of people murdered. Could this paper (and subsequent discussion) shed some light on this discrepancy?


    Screenshot 2016-07-13 14.33.16
    (Source: Australian Institute of Criminology, Homicide report)

  3. More generally, why  would this moral chivalry phenomenon  exist? As I wasn’t 100%  convinced by any of the (attempted) answers provided by FeldmanHall et al., I was hoping for some enlightening discussion in the group.

At our journal club, however, after a brief overview of the possible mechanisms and/or theories that could account for the effect – mind perception, benevolent sexism, social norms, emotional aversion, something to do with individual differences in sensitivity to harm and fairness – the discussion turned fairly and squarely to domestic violence.

Which, frankly, makes me slightly uncomfortable. Both in the obvious sense that domestic violence makes me uncomfortable – i.e. I get sad when people suffer, especially at the hands of someone who should be caring for them! – but also in the weirdly disturbing sense of “Did we just confirm the point of the paper?”  As in, the paper was specifically about people seeming less concerned about harm to men than to women – and now we’ve more or less ignored it, in favour of discussing harm to women.

That discomfort in turn deepens my curiosity about whyWhy are we (so much?) more concerned about women being harmed? I’m sure we can come up with some possible answers that don’t involve MRA-style conspiracies – so then let’s study them?


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