The “Nothing Box”: One Way Men and Women Are Different

As I was thinking about my most recent blog on male-female differences, I asked the female cashier at Starbucks, “Do you think men and women are really different?” The cashier said, “Yeah, of course, you know like Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus.” The guy behind me in line started cracking up in a way that I knew he was thinking “Oh yes they are—if you give me a minute I can tell you ‘bout my girl; she drives me craaaazy!”

Later in the week, I asked male graduate student, “Do you think women and men are different?” He paused, and then thoughtfully said, “Well, of course they are, but the question is not are they different but why and how they are different.” A third, and important question, is what are we do to about these differences?

Too often, discussions of male-female difference are used to argue for the superiority of men over women, or vice versa. Too often, women who have some more typical masculine personality characteristics feel mis-represented when talking about male-female differences; the same goes for men with more typically feminine female characteristics.

Well, part of the reason I avoided this topic for so long is that discussions of male-female differences can easily turn into facile stereotypes and stories of wars between the sexes. I will now attempt to broach this important topic through moderation—neither exaggerating sex differences nor ignoring them. After all, the essence of virtue is to strike the mean, and if we want to learn about male-female differences the first thing to avoid is extreme stereotypes about those differences or the typical response to those extreme stereotypes—denying that any real differences exist at all.

My answer about whether men and women are really different has several parts. First, we need to understand that a combination of biology, character and society make men and women different; further, women and men differ, on the whole, in specific typical vices and virtues. Finally, being aware of these differences can be an important way to grow in the virtues, because we can learn from the virtuous people around us, both men and women.

Here is one brief example of how men and women differ.  This YouTube video rather dramatically explains male-female differences in the brain to make the point that men are quite content to think about nothing, or perhaps to just to think about one thing at a time. Women, by contrast, tend to think about multiple things at once.

To illustrate this point, this video describes quite amusingly how men’s brains are divided into boxes that never touch each other; and their favorite box is something of a mystery to women–it’s the  ”nothing box.” By contrast, women’s brains are full of connectivity, everything is connected to everything, and women can jump topics extremely fast, often bewildering men.

YouTube Preview Image

Last night, I watched this video with 6 women who are part of a group called Inspiring Women. For the past 2 and a half years, I’ve been meeting with a group of graduate students and other women in the Inspiring Women group to read and discuss books and articles on character, virtue and culture, among other things. As we discussed the challenges in balancing work and family, one woman talked about how both she and her husband work hard all day, but whereas she rushes to make dinner as soon as she gets home, he’s quite content to sit on the couch and do nothing. It’s not that he doesn’t want to help, she explained, but he just doesn’t think about making dinner asked to help. That’s one example of the “nothing box,” I think.

I explained that one day when I was feeling overwhelmed, I asked a male colleague how he deals with working on so many things at once, and he replied, “Well, I just think about the one thing I’m working on at the moment.” My jaw almost hit the floor. How can anyone possibly only think about one thing at time, I wondered? Hearing about how men can work in just one box at a time helped me understand what my colleague was saying.

So what do we do about these differences? One group member explained that she tries really, really hard while at work not to worry about the cooking at housework she has to do when she gets home. That attitude is the essence of virtue–most women may find the “nothing box” (or perhaps the “nothing else but what’s in front of me box”) very, very hard to climb into, but we need to try. Similarly, men can try to think ahead, plan, and make connections across boxes in their brains. Virtue is in the meaning–something in between the “nothing box” and the “everything all at once box.”

I have only scratched the surface here of this important topic. My point in discussing these differences is simply to have an open, honest dialogue through which we can all learn. I do not think that overall either sex is more virtuous, but I do think  that the two sexes in general excel in different virtues, and I think we can all learn from observing others who excel in virtues in which we don’t excel. In the end, if we aim for the best virtues generally seen in men and women, then sex differences wouldn’t matter nearly as much.

  • George

    This is a great example of how we can aknowledge sex differences without getting mad at each other about it. Just last night I was vegging out with a solitare program and my wife commented on the fact that I do not do that often. She is right but every now and then I need to go into my “nothing” box. There are advantages and disadvantages to it. My wife tells me that she does not understand men and I tell her that we are simple creatures. I think last night she got a little more insight into that by seeing me just doing nothing.
    By the way I have also struggled to understand women. When I was single it took me a long time to realize that women do not see things the same way as men. It still pains me to see men make stupid mistake because they approach women as if they are men. I think of men as simple and women as more complex. But it is easy for me to think that way since I am a man and understand my patterns eaiser than I understand the inter connectiveness in women.
    Appreciating the differences rather than wishing them away helps us to appreciate the sexes. And provides each sex the right to not feel obilgated to act contrary to their own tendencies. And like Margarita suggests allows us to learn from each other since we do not have to try to argue that a mascusline trait is superior to a feminine trait and vice versa.

    • http://margaritamooney.com Margarita A. Mooney

      Thanks George, I’m glad you liked it. I think that acknowledging differences does help us appreciate them; but in every particular situation, we have to ask ourselves, “What is the best thing to do?” Sometimes the answer might indeed lie in going against our own tendencies, whether they be due to character or sex.

  • http://krusekronicle.com Michael W. Kruse

    Several quick thoughts. I seem to recall that a few weeks into fetal development that males undergo a testosterone bath, with one of the effects being that communication pathways between two halves of the brain are significantly reduced. Female brains are literally hardwired for a level of brain activity that men are not.

    I remember reading about a study a few years ago that compared men and women in war-gaming exercises during military training. The women tended to develop more comprehensive and well thought out plans but they took longer. Men tended toward plans that were not as elegant, but sufficient to get the result needed, in less time. The bell-curves for both sexes considerably overlapped but there was a difference.

    I’ve heard some researchers speculate that the absence of women from the highest echelons of mathematics and science may be their relative inability to stay focused on pure math/science with the level of intensity required over extended time. Instead, women are more prone to be drawn to application of the math or science. Again, we are talking overlapping bell-curves, not binary differences.

    Finally, I have a barber friend who cuts men’s and women’s hair and he has both male and female barbers working with him. He would dispute, to a degree, that women do not try to fix problems. What he observed is that a man will state a problem. His male friend will immediately turn to the dynamics of the problem and begin to help find a solution. What he observed with female conversations is that typically the listener initially responds with something like, “Aw, that must have been so hard for you. I’m so sorry.” Then, after the emotional empathy has happened, and only then, does she begin with statements like, “You know, you should really thing about …” Men are often put off when women respond to them this way, feeling there manhood insulted, implying that they are not in control of their emotions and need emotional support. Women are often put off by the male response because he doesn’t acknowledge the emotional stress she is processing, thus the “You’re not listening” retort when goes immediately to fixing things.

    • http://margaritamooney.com Margarita A. Mooney

      Those are good examples. I think as we learn more about the brain, we will continue to learn how hormones influence behavior. But I still think that biology is only part of the story. As you say, these differences we are talking about are not binary, but overlapping bell curves. That’s a great mental image.

  • Kev

    Amusingly, some evolutionary biologists like to go back to caveman days. Whether this is true or not, it is a theory.
    So the theory goes, that men usually did the hunting, and to be a good hunter, you need singularity of purpose, like stalking and focusing on your prey. (The theory is trying to explain why men like meat more than women do, why in general men are bigger/stronger than women, why men tend to focus on one thing at a time, etc.)
    Women, on the other hand, were left with childcare, farming, foraging, etc. So they had to multitask. They had to deal with kids at the same time as dealing with crops or berries or whatever.

    I don’t think the theory tries to delineate too hard between nature/nurture. It’s mostly anecdotal, but amusing.

    On the more serious side, there are things that both sexes do that are helpful and that both sides can learn from each other.

    • http://margaritamooney.com Margarita A. Mooney

      Yes, people often try to link male-female differences to gender-specific roles. I think that the evolutionary biology perspective is just one piece of the picture. Virtue and culture matter as well.

  • Ted Seeber

    I’m eager to read future posts in this series. I suggest a way forward is to concentrate on the virutes and try to ignore the vices. Quite often these discussions degrade into “Women are better than men” or “Beer is better than women” because of the concentration on vices.

    BTW, in our post-feminist world, men are not better than anything. We’re at the bottom of the heap.

    • http://margaritamooney.com Margarita A. Mooney

      Yes, I have found that talking about vices of one sex or another often leads into making fun of the other sex or asserting that one sex is better than the other. I do think that talking about virtues is helpful; even if we don’t all agree on whether one sex tends to be more virtuous in one thing compared to the other sex, if we can agree on what the virtues are, that’s helpful to everyone.

    • Christin Winniford

      While I agree with you that avoiding a men vs. women debate is not an effective use of energy, I’m a bit concerned with your final comment.

      What do you mean by “our post-feminist world”? Are you saying that feminism (def: the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes aka gender equality) is social movement that is no longer necessary?

      Perhaps, the $.77:dollar female:male U.S. income disparity; the unprecedented number of laws restricting women’s reproductive rights that have been passed in our most recent 10 years (and the link to an increase in human trafficking worldwide); the lack of differentiation in health/nutrition research for male and female bodies (despite extremely different metabolic and endocrine functions); or the fact that “the African Women’s Health Center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital estimated that 227,887 women and girls had been at risk of being subjected to female genital mutilation in the U.S. during the year 2000″ could lead you to reevaluate your determination of our world as a “post-feminist” one. I haven’t even begun to mention the many ways our patriarchal culture harms men, because it’s a longer conversation to explain how social conditioning encourages rape and emotional detachment, and the long term negative consequences of this. Whereas, pretty much everyone understands that human trafficking and genital mutilation are wrong. Now is a time when feminism is needed greatly. Preferably male feminists. In the United States and worldwide.

      Additionally, I suspect that those 227,887 women and girls who were at risk in 2000 for having their genitals mutilated are a lot closer to the “bottom of the heap” (as long as you’re referring to the heap of power) than most men. In the future, please consider how such statements might highlight your ignorance or encourage ignorance in others before repeating them.

      If one believes feminism to be a bad thing, then Zhe: A. is unaware of what feminism is and does, B. is benefiting from the system that creates inequality, or C. believes that inequality is a desirable or justified result. Refusing to believe the inequality exists is willful ignorance.

      If you still believe we’ve already achieved gender equality please visit:
      http://www.equalitynow.org
      http://www.guttmacher.org
      http://www.unwomen.org
      http://www.prb.org/igwg_media/researchgaps.pdf (This is an analysis of the gender gaps in health research.)

      Good luck in your future endeavors to understand genders other than your own, it is a worthy effort!

      • Chris Rosenberger

        I am astounded by your ability to read an insult into a harmless statement, Christin.

        I have just one article to post that I believe portrays the gender pay gap much more accurately than your $.77:1.00 statistic.

        http://www.forbes.com/sites/realspin/2012/05/21/mind-the-malefemale-income-gap-but-dont-exaggerate-it/

        But, to the subject matter of this blog entry:

        What if the “nothing-box” or apparent ability of men to shut their mind off from thought, or at least meaningful thought is a result of more typically harrowing lifestyles? Men traditionally have been hunters and soldiers and also dealt with more mundane acts that women (that I know at least) typically eschew – like killing rats, cats, spiders, scorpions, or beloved family dogs with rabies.

        Perhaps the ability to not dwell on sights that cannot be unseen, or acts that cannot be taken back is correlated to the amount that men have had to perform acts that are best not remembered.

        I have found as a former soldier that I am better able to handle every day life when every day life doesn’t have unpleasant, intruding memories that are better left in a dark, musky box that does not see the light of day. Days when I am able to “check out” of whatever is going on, are easier to cope with than days that can have very unpleasant memories vying for my attention.

        It would appear that some research shows women being more prone to developing PTSD symptoms than men, attributing “fear conditioning” differences between men and women.
        http://www.ucsf.edu/news/2012/11/13155/gender-differences-ptsd-risk-may-be-due-heightened-fear-conditioning-women

        I wonder if a subconscious mechanism plays a response in men to allow them to function better after traumatic events – specifically, the ability to think of nothing at times, or to be singularly focused at others.

  • http://jilldomschot.com Jill

    I’ve been mulling over the true differences between men and women, and I think you’re onto something with the multi-tasking. As a woman, I’ve always struggled at it, but it seems just from being a “life sociologist” that women are quite good at processing a variety of ideas and activities at one time. It also seems I’ve read neurological research that backs this up. It’s something I need to develop in myself, I think (understanding that men and women possess gender traits on a spectrum).

    • http://margaritamooney.com Margarita A. Mooney

      Yes, I do think multi-tasking can be a strength. Sometimes for me, multi-tasking turns into worrying, which is not good. I was just listening to a talk last night that said we need to know our strengths, not just our weaknesses.

  • Ted Seeber

    I think I just figured out why this, and your more recent post, doesn’t quite ring true for me. It’s because I’m autistic.

    The number of male children between the ages of 6-14 on Ritalin tells an entirely different story when you’re talking about grade school instead of college. For one, most instructors in grade school are women. For another, that’s a particularly difficult time for male children just due to how their bodies are growing.

    I see a strong post-1965 bias against men in American culture; and the growing ASD component seems to indicate a bias in the diagnostic criteria for hyperactivity and autism that is extremely anti-male.

    And to me, that’s why only 40% of college graduates are male.

  • Jerry Park

    Just saw this today and made me think of this post Margarita: “this is what the brain looks like when it thinks of nothing”
    http://gizmodo.com/5965433/this-is-what-thinking-nothing-looks-like
    I guess men will exhibit these patterns more often than women!


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