Fiction And Females

In January I wrote:

Both religion and fiction serve to reassure our associates that we will be nice.  … Religious beliefs show we expect the not nice to be punished by supernatural powers, and our favorite fiction shows the sort of people we think are heroes and villains, how often they are revealed or get their due reward, and so on.  We don’t believe the stories really happened, but we do tend to believe these “social truths” about their characters.

Robert Wilbin asked me how that fits with these ’06 findings:

[Researchers] interviewed 500 men, many of whom had some professional connection with literature, about the novels that had changed their lives. … Similar research into women’s favourite novels …  [was] last year.  The results are strikingly different. …

Women … named a “much richer and more diverse” set of novels than men. … “Men do not regard books as a constant companion to their life’s journey, as consolers or guides, as women do,” … Women readers used much-loved books to support them through difficult times and emotional turbulence, and tended to employ them as metaphorical guides to behaviour, or as support and inspiration.  “The men’s list was all angst and Orwell. Sort of puberty reading,” she said. Ideas touching on isolation and “aloneness” were strong among the men’s “milestone” books. … They revealed a pattern verging on a gender cliche, with women citing emotional, more domestic works, and men novels about social dislocation and solitary struggle.  She was also surprised she said, “by the firmness with which many men said that fiction didn’t speak to them”. … Most of the men cited books they had read as teenagers, and many of them stopped reading fiction while young adults, only returning to it in late middle age. …  “On the whole, men between the ages of 20 and 50 do not read fiction.”

Men do like fictional heroes that maintain and even develop their determination, ideals, and identity in the face of outside indifference or hostility.  This makes sense as a male ideal, since men need to project confidence and toughness in our world.

Men probably also tend to avoid religion between the ages of 20 and 50, at least when free to choose for themselves.  I wonder why such men see less need to use fiction or religion to show their identity and ideals, relative to women or other aged men.

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  • Ben

    Men prefer to be the hero of their story, rather than identify with (and thus defer to) other heroes. Religion also invokes deference to an absolute authority. Men ages 20-50 strive to be the authority within their social circle and relationships, and to defer to fictional or religious authority would reduce social status.

  • stephen

    Immediate questions that come to mind:

    Do men between 20 and 50 signal more with non-fiction and perhaps sports somehow? Is a man’s identity the most “stable” between these ages, and does that lower the need to signal somehow? What affect does raising children and having an established career have on male signaling and identity?

    Whatever the reason, this pattern rings true in my life. Most of the fiction I have read, and the stuff I am most passionate about, I read in my teens and early 20’s. At this point, it is mostly non-fiction I get excited about. My wife, on the other hand, still plows through the stuff without any effort.

  • TGGP

    Funny enough, Gene Expression just had a post on that tendency, though ascribed to those on the autistic spectrum rather than men generally.

  • aged men have reduced testosterone. this is one reason they are more weepy.

  • ‘You read an artist’s book not with your heart (the heart is a remarkably stupid reader), and not with your brain alone, but with your brain and spine.’ –Vladimir Nabokov

  • Douglas Knight

    many of whom had some professional connection with literature

    This is not a representative sample! If the book industry wants to know who’s running it and who’s choosing the prizes, this is a useful study. If you want to know about humans generally, even upper class humans, this is not useful.

    I believe book-(not just fiction)-reading adults are divided into three equal groups: women who only read romance novels, women who also read other things, and men. So, yes, men over 20 do avoid fiction. and, contrary to the claim of the article, the industry is aware of it.

  • Matt

    I read a John Stossel blog this morning,
    It’s about how legel interpretaitons of Title IX have forced schools to shut down well funded male athletic programs because a female counter to the program didn’t exist. Could some sort of fiction reading sport be invented to even things out? It seems clear women would be more interested in fiction reading than sports so I think this may be a win-win for everyone.
    It might not be the best idea but I’m starting to abandon hope that stupid federal laws get repealed.

  • I’m suprised the drop-off point for men is 50 rather than 60+ -> men at age 50 tend to be enter their status peaks in our society. Is their something special in particular about age 50 in terms of shifts in the testosterone/estrogen ratio in men?

    Given the fictional nature of nonfiction, news, and broadcast media (filled with narratives, story arcs, and heros, villians, rewards, and punishments) I think this may have more to do with how men and women react to what’s labeled “fiction” and what’s labeled a “novel”. Lots of the elements of fiction and novels are present on CNN, CNBC, ESPN, the History Channel, the Discovery Channel, biographies, histories, and in business books.

  • Matt, to get meta, how did “maleness” capture your identity more saliently than other trait identifiers?

    Feel free to answer in my latest blog post, if OB is an inappropriate forum.

  • Why “Fiction and Females”? The post is almost entirely about men.

  • Robin, if women’s views about relationships are less constrained to realism than men’s (as you hypothesized before), perhaps fiction’s reassurance that the world is unrealistic is more tempting.

  • Zubon,
    I think Robin’s latest posts are playing with the response volume elicited when his posts reference women.

  • Robert Wiblin

    Don’t men in that age group have the most incentive to show they will make reliable fathers? Why would they want to rebel so?

    • More evidence that they do want to:

      Griskevicius, V. et al., 2006. Going Along Versus Going Alone: When Fundamental Motives Facilitate Strategic (Non)Conformity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91(2), 281-294.

      Three experiments examined how 2 fundamental social motives–self-protection and mate attraction–influenced conformity. A self-protective goal increased conformity for both men and women. In contrast, the effects of a romantic goal depended on sex, causing women to conform more to others’ preferences while engendering nonconformity in men. Men motivated to attract a mate were particularly likely to nonconform when (a) nonconformity made them unique (but not merely a member of a small minority) and when (b) the topic was subjective versus objective, meaning that nonconformists could not be revealed to be incorrect.

  • I wouldn’t be surprised if this were true, but my reading habits are precisely the reverse of what is indicated by the statistics – I read almost entirely non-fiction, and what fiction I read tends to be Jack Vance, Robert Heinlein; Elric, Doc Savage, Conan. I can’t stand ‘present era’ fiction unless it’s something like Guns, Drugs and Monsters by Steve Niles.

  • John

    As a man between 20 and 50, I find the facts unsurprising, but the analysis laughable.

    I read maybe 3-4 nights a week, all nonfiction. Why? Because it has a point. I read auto-biographies of successful or interesting people. I read about stocks and investing, about computers and technology, and about science and mathematics. All of these things are interesting to me, all of these topics are useful to me.

    So many female academics want to treat men as “Women pretending to be men”. I don’t have emotions and insecurities that I’m hiding, I’m not trying to “project” anything. When you think I’m hiding an emotion, you’re wrong, I just really don’t feel or experience emotion in the way you do.

    I care how Peter Lynch ran a successful mutual fund. I couldn’t care less how a fictional protagonist dealt with some emotion.

  • ravi hegde

    Fascinating post and very interesting comments. My theory for the difference in reading material preference is based on two points

    1) The possible evolutionary advantage (and the resulting cognitive pleasure) of fiction and non-fiction.
    2) The difference in men and women on the so called empathizing-systematizing scale.

    1) Possible evolutionary advantages
    Fiction ideally is a substitute for theater and other story telling mechanisms prevalent in ancient times. Most people realize very well (even women) that there is a big divergence between fiction and real life, yet GOOD fiction is in a way emotional practice. It develops empathy and social intelligence (purely because it shows us the universality of human condition). Women usually tend to be more bound to society and it is more advantageous for them to analyze social situations more deeply. Of course there are always some women who read romance novels purely as an escape fantasy. But escape is good for you within limits.

    Then take non-fiction, this is ideally a substitute for learning skills for resource acquisition. Clearly, men who have yet to build real social status (20 – 50 yr usually for men) should focus exclusively on resource acquisition and alliance formation (both of which are aided by non-fiction) and NOT on non-work related social connections ( Watching sports aids in understanding coalition dynamics). The only fiction that should appeal emotionally to most low status men (20 – 50s) would be those that idealize schizotypal tendencies ..and the eventual crowning of a hero. For men in their later years understanding of social world and manipulation of people starts to pay off and thus we must see older men showing higher interest in GOOD fiction.

    2) The difference in cognitive processing abilities
    The format for fiction is non linear usually and there is a very good reason for this. Social intelligence is usually fluid intelligence.. based less on exact rules and systems and more on intuiting and emotional awareness. Most guys never have this level of empathizing intelligence to appreciate GOOD fiction until old age. The format for non-fiction is more linear, analytical and more of a systematizing kind. Most women never have this level of systematizing intelligence to appreciate non-fiction.

    Now the very interesting question is in the creation of fiction and non-fiction works. I am not aware if there is a study on the kinds of fiction that men usually produce in their different ages. If my theory above is correct, one should be able to take a writer who was productive throughout his life and analyze his writing style. In the 20s one should see technical brilliance, in the 30s one should see intellectual complexity and in later years one should see deeper social observations deftly incorporated into lengthier and lengthier pieces. How would this compare to the writing style of a woman throughout her life?

  • mjgeddes

    Hold on a minute, books are only one type of fictional narrative, surely men attend movies/watch TV etc just as much (if not more) than woman?

    The result is probably simply due to the fact that men favor visual modalities whereas woman favor written language.

  • This study shows an interesting pattern of sex differences in social communication.

    Additional note: The Guardian apparently got the sample size wrong. According to the press release for the study (which seems to be the most authoritative public reporting of the study), the survey size was 400, not 500.