Why Men Are Bad At “Feelings”

Mating in mammals has a basic asymmetry – females must invest more in each child than males. This can lead to an equilibrium where males focus on impressing and having sex with as many females as possible, while females do most of the child-rearing and choose impressive males.

Since human kids require extra child-rearing, human foragers developed pair-bonding, wherein for a few years a male gave substantial resource support to help raising a kid in trade for credible signs that the kid was his. Farmers strengthened such bonds into “marriage” — while both lived, the man gave resources sufficient to raise kids, and the woman only had sex with him. Such strong pair-bonds were held together not only by threats of social punishment, but also by strong feelings of attachment.

Such bonds can break, however. And because they are asymmetric, their betrayal is also asymmetric. Women betray bonds more by temporarily having fertile sex with other men, while men betray bonds more by directing resources more permanently to other women. So when farmer husbands and wives watch for signs of betrayal, they watch for different things. Husbands watch wives more for signs of a temporary inclination toward short-term mating with other men, while wives watch husbands more for signs of an inclination to shift toward a long-term resource-giving bond with other women. (Of course they both watch for both sorts of inclinations; the issue is emphasis.)

This asymmetric watching for signs of betrayal produces asymmetric pressures on appearances. While a man can be more straight-forward and honest with himself and others about his inclinations toward short-term sex, he should be more careful with the signs he shows about his inclinations toward long term attachments with women. Similarly, while a woman can be more straight-forward and honest with herself and others about her inclinations toward long-term attachments with men, she should be more careful with the signs she shows about her inclinations toward short term sex with men.

For both men and women, carelessly strong signs of an inclination toward betrayal could needlessly break their marriage. Of course it may sometimes be in one’s interest to show weak signs of such an inclination, as a threat to induce better terms of trade in the relation. But such brinksmanship should be done very carefully.

Men and women may have evolved, either genetically or culturally, to adapt to these pressures on their appearances. If so, then we should expect men to be more self-aware, transparent, and simple regarding their feelings about short-term sexual attractions, while women have more complex, layered, and opaque feelings on this subject. In contrast, women should be more more self-aware, transparent, and simple regarding their feelings about long-term pair-bonding, while men have more complex, layered, and opaque feelings on this subject. By being more opaque on sensitive subjects, we can keep ourselves from giving off clear signals of an inclination to betray.

Standard crude stereotypes of gender differences roughly fit these predictions! That is, when the subject is one’s immediate lust and sexual attraction to others, by reputation men are more straight-forward and transparent, while women are more complex and opaque, even to themselves. But when the subject is one’s inclination toward and feelings about long-term attachments, by reputation women are more self-aware and men are more complex and opaque, even to themselves.

So let’s sum up. Why don’t men express their “feelings”?  (At least about “love” – they easily express “feelings” about sex.) And why don’t women know when they are “horny”? Perhaps because such knowledge is dangerous – if you know it, then others may learn what you know from you. Which might destroy your marriage. So our feelings may be most opaque to us when we need them to be opaque to others. Homo hypocritus mates.

Added 10a: Similar incentives apply in the gradual creation of a long-term bond. He slowly becomes more inclined to devote resources to her over a long term, while she slowly becomes more inclined to become sexually exclusive with him. Neither side should too easily give all they have to offer before the other side has given all it has to offer. Opaque feelings help to manage such a slow matched escalation in feelings.

This whole story requires that given ambiguous signals people tend to assume the best, rather than assume the worst. Seems to apply to people, though I’m not sure why.

Added 1Aug: As I commented, “husbands having outside sex, and women breaking off the long term relation, are both weaker forms of betrayal than vice versa. As a weaker form of betrayal, people feel more free to do them.”

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  • jsalvatier

    I thought the usual stereotype was the opposite, that men are more likely to cheat “on the side” and women are more likely to leave the relationship. Is there relevant evidence here?

  • http://www.gwern.net/plastination gwern

    Such differing incentives would at least explain the hostile wife phenomenon in cryonics (http://www.depressedmetabolism.com/is-that-what-love-is-the-hostile-wife-phenomenon-in-cryonics/ or https://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/11/magazine/11cryonics-t.html for that matter).

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    jsalvatier, husbands having outside sex, and women breaking off the long term relation, are both weaker forms of betrayal than vice versa. As a weaker form of betrayal, people feel more free to do them.

    Gwern, yes if cryonics is framed as abandonment, women should be more sensitive to that signal.

  • dirk

    I was going to ask the same question as jsalvatier. Your response is insightful. Roissy’s maxim: men cheat, women betray — holds in terms of each party having outside sex. Your theory also holds for how society tends to judge each party: a cheating wife is viewed worse than a cheating husband, whereas a divorcing husband is viewed worse than a divorcing wife.

  • OhioStater

    You are saying: main risk to husband is short-term “hot wife”; main risk to wife is drained bank account. I think we are looking at this the wrong way.

    I can’t reference a scientific study to support this claim, but women are only capable of truly loving one man at a time. A woman may have 10 sex partners in a year, but not at once and not interchangeably. In her mind, she had 10 consecutive exclusive boyfriends. Maybe it was exclusive for an hour, or a day, or a month, but it was exclusive. If she’s cheating on her boyfriend, then he’s not really her boyfriend. Men historically have shown greater ability to maintain multiple concurrent sexual relationships: harems, mistresses, prostitutes, polygamy.

    When a woman cheats on a partner, other female observers conclude the “cock of the walk” is in, the partner is out. There is only space for one guy. She can only have one guy, and her formal partner is not that guy.

    I think we have a projection bias here.

    When a wife sees her husband cheat, she thinks she’s out, just the same as he would be out if she decided cheated on him. She doesn’t realize he has emotional room to bond with 3, 5, 10, 20 women.

    Women rate male attractiveness with their feelings. Alpha men can theoretically provide more support and safety for their families. She thinks: “He looks dominant, he looks important, but he doesn’t stand up to me. If he doesn’t stand up to me, then how can he stand up to the world?”

    When he’s quiet and distant and awkward, it doesn’t mean that he doesn’t like her, but she acts that way toward men she’s not attracted to. Men are bad at feelings because it is not needed to bond with a woman, whereas a woman needs feelings to bond with a man.

    • Leo

      women are only capable of truly loving one man at a time

      From observation of polyamorous relationships, this is complete bullshit.

  • http://www.marketingeconomist.com Peter St Onge

    I’m inclined towards Rubin’s take in Darwinian Politics. I read him as canonical female trust is whether another woman will feed your kids as well as her own when you aren’t watching. For men, the canonical trust is whether you’ll stand and fight alongside me when the time comes.

    Meaning that communicating about feelings are, for women, a way to gauge trustworthiness in hard-to-verify situations.

    For men, talking about feelings are akin to ruminating about one’s career choices in earshot of one’s boss.

  • JS Allen

    If I were the guy writing this post, I would spend the prior couple of weeks signalling a deepening long-term financial commitment to my wife, so that she wouldn’t interpret the post as an attempt to think through my subtle thoughts of long-term attachment to another woman.

    • richard silliker

      That’s funny.

  • Robert Koslover

    “Standard crude stereotypes of gender differences roughly fit these predictions! “

    Well… might those stereotypes have been part of the inspiration for your ideas about this in the first place? If so, then the quote above doesn’t deserve an exclamation point.

  • Douglas Knight

    The last paragraph – that this assumes ambiguous signals are interpreted positively – is not necessary for the added paragraph on building up a principal relationship, because there are also costly signals; the opacity is about how far the costly signals will go in the future. It is only problematic for the cheating story.

  • Psychohistorian

    “wherein for a few years a male gave substantial resource support to help raising a kid in trade for credible signs that the kid was his.”

    The shape of the human penis strongly disagrees with you. I’m not aware of much evidence that pre-historic man made such support contingent on paternity certainty. Moreover, since people existed in small bands of hunter-gatherers, it seems pretty unlikely that they raised children/allocated resources based on a narrow nuclear family. 1950 was not the ancestral environment.

    Also, I’m not sure “transparency” is really the issue. From the women I know, they’re not confused about when they’re horny. The failure of women to express their sexual interests seems rather more likely to stem from social conditioning – women who seem more “liberated” appear to have a lot less trouble expressing their sexual interests. When women seek signs of emotional commitment, I think failure to provide them tends to be based on their actual absence, not a lack of knowledge on men’s part (though I suppose that hypothesis is non-falsifiable from my perspective – how would a man know?). In particular, if you look in the past, i.e. before 1950, men were extremely emotional. Look at love letters from the 17 and 1800’s. Again, men who are more “liberated” in that their immediate cultural surroundings do not value gender stereotypes are much more likely to be openly emotional. You’re ignoring an obvious, better explanation.

    And you’ve failed to explain why self-deception *helps* deception generally. It seems intuitive because we’re basically wired that way – but WHY are we wired that way?

    • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

      Michael Bailey gathered evidence that women are confused by hooking up electrodes to their hoo-has.

      The theory of self-deception to better deceive is usually attributed to Robert Trivers.

  • http://reviewsindepth.com Dan Haggard

    This is a nice explanation – and helps me understand the lack of self-transparency issue a bit better.

    So what then will be the effect of increased economic power of women? I know you think greater licentiousness will result generally as a result of increased wealth in modern times – but will it also change the significance of economic based signals from men to women? Will a wife care less if the husband buys flowers for the secretarial pool (an anachronism i know).

    I read one paper that suggested that women have adapted to their changing economic fortunes – and have become more willing to assert direct power in relationships (as in making overt demands) – as opposed to indirect power (lying and gossip etc) in order to get their way. This suggests to me the possibility of responding differently to signals as well.

    But if these adaptations to circumstance are possible – it makes me questions the transparency aspect again. Why should that adaptation in particular have evolved (and remain seemingly static with respect to modern times) – when other aspects of behaviour do seem change with the times.

    Could it be that we’ll become better able to inspect our feelings as economic wealth increases?

  • nate

    Justifying the status quo using shotty sociobiological/evolutionary psych reasoning. Dawkins did it in the first edition of the Selfish Gene, and countless others have followed since.
    Your theory is a “just-so” story used to justify your preconceptions about sex and gender relations in society. It’s no wonder you don’t cite any empirical data to support your hypothesis. Such an incredibly complex subject as evolutionary pressures on human social behavior requires far more restraint, skepticism, and scientific rigor than is shown in your post. Overcome your bias!

    • dave

      “It’s no wonder you don’t cite any empirical data to support your hypothesis.”

      There are many books with reams of data. Just because you don’t like a conclusion doesn’t mean it isn’t true. People who don’t like evo psych simply don’t like the results, they don’t offer arguments against it.

      • nate

        I’d love to see these “reams of data”.

    • Miley Cyrax

      Maybe you should do a bit of research on your own instead of demanding others to proffer research that you’ll likely just knee-jerkedly deny and decry because it doesn’t fit your worldview.

      • Cyan

        Love your handle.

      • nate

        The burden of proof does not rest on the shoulders of those sharing my “worldview”.
        To think that is the case is to underestimate the epistemological barriers one encounters in dealing with the immense complexities of human behavior, of natural selection on the scale of human societies, and of data gathering in the social sciences. Show me how your hypotheses are supported by solid evidence, because the fact that they coincide remarkably well with how beer commercials instruct you to behave, I believe, is a very strong piece of evidence against them.
        I don’t intend to dispute the validity of sociobiology or evolutionary psychology in principle. I believe that such approaches are the only way in which the causes of human behavior can be understood. I do however, dispute many of the conclusions made by these sciences on the grounds of limited evidence. (some simpler cases, such as the shape of the human penis, I think are well substantiated by empirical evidence). I just don’t think people realize just how much evidence it takes to be sure you’re right in the social sciences, and in the case of prof. robin’s hypothesis, I think it’s more than is currently available, though I could be convinced otherwise. (and I invite you to do so).

        “I have the advantage of having found out how hard it is to get to really know something, how careful you have to be in checking things, how easy it is to make mistakes and fool yourself. I know what it means to know something, and therefore I see how they get their information, and I can’t believe that they know it. They haven’t done the work necessary, they haven’t done the checks necessary, the care necessary. I have a great suspicion that they don’t know this stuff, and they’re intimidating people with it.” Richard Feynman, The Pleasure of Finding Things Out (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=taEw97brZis [4:15])

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  • http://theviewfromhell.blogspot.com Sister Y

    This whole story requires that given ambiguous signals people tend to assume the best, rather than assume the worst. Seems to apply to people, though I’m not sure why.

    Not that I buy your model, but fMRI studies of the early stages of romantic love have been linked to deactivation of critical social assessment and of negative emotion in general, allowing for the kind of uncritical relationship escalation you propose.

  • http://thismachinekillscommunists.blogspot.com/ Thrasymachus

    I wonder if it is just confirmation bias, but every piece of data and evolutionary psychology I read about women makes me hate them more.

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  • EEriksson

    @Psychohistorian

    “The failure of women to express their sexual interests seems rather more likely to stem from social conditioning – women who seem more “liberated” appear to have a lot less trouble expressing their sexual interests”

    I used to think the above was the case but I no longer do. If a large factor in holding back female sexuality was social pressure then it follows that women would be more likely to use anonymous or pseudonymous sex/dating services than they are. Try to find a male prostitute that services only women and charges more than a fraction of what a female prostitute charges.

    Go to sex and dating sites and see the extreme over representation of men.

    This might just be an effect of the much lower female libido but if it’s so much lower then the male libido that the effect of social pressure disappear in the noise I’m not sure why we even need to discuss social pressure as the effect appears to be negligible.

    P.S. I just realized I misunderstood your post somewhat. As in I read conditioning as pressure but I’m posting anyway.

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  • http://www.howtoplayholdem.qarf.com Cameron

    “If a large factor in holding back female sexuality was social pressure then it follows that women would be more likely to use anonymous or pseudonymous sex/dating services than they are.”

    What if the societal conditioning was so strong that it meant women were likely to avoid seeking out even anonymous sex and masturbating because they “knew” it was wrong.

    In the ancient greek world it was common for men to take other men as their lovers, but now only a small percentage of men to so, maybe society (or nurture) has more power over our sexual impulses than our genes do.

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  • http://www.bitedge.co/ bitedge

    Ha! Never has the contention of a title (that men are bad at feelings) been so proven true by the article.