Are Men What’s Wrong With Politics?

Women are better at listening to political opponents, less susceptible to partisan blindness, a study finds.

Boys club
National Journal
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Brian Resnick
Feb. 2, 2015, 4:55 a.m.

There are cur­rently more wo­men serving in Con­gress than at any oth­er time in his­tory. This un­doubtedly is a be­ne­fit for the in­sti­tu­tion, which for most of its his­tory has been a boy’s club. And the change has had im­me­di­ate, ma­jor im­pact: Con­sider the bi­par­tis­an co­ali­tion of fe­male House mem­bers who ban­ded to­geth­er to stop an abor­tion bill, over a meas­ure that would re­quire wo­men to re­port rape to au­thor­it­ies.

Aside from the is­sue of equal rep­res­ent­a­tion, there’s a deep­er reas­on why wo­men are good for gov­ernance. Wo­men, on a psy­cho­lo­gic­al level, are bet­ter at en­ga­ging in polit­ic­al dis­cus­sion with those they dis­agree with. They are less sus­cept­ible to the par­tis­an bi­ases that of­ten blind politi­cians.

Make no mis­take, every­one is sus­cept­ible to par­tis­an bi­as—it’s baked in­to our DNA. What Patrick R. Miller and Pamela John­ston Con­over are con­clud­ing in their new study pub­lished in the journ­al Polit­ics, Groups, and Iden­tit­ies, is that the ef­fects of this bi­as are less pro­nounced in wo­men.

The ex­per­i­ment

Con­over and Miller re­cruited 460 col­lege-aged par­ti­cipants (230 men, 230 wo­men, slightly more Demo­crats than Re­pub­lic­ans), and had them read ed­it­or­i­als pur­portedly writ­ten by Re­pub­lic­an Mitch Mc­Con­nell or Demo­crat Harry Re­id. The test: wheth­er par­tis­ans would give the ed­it­or­i­al writ­ten by the op­pos­ing party any con­sid­er­a­tion, as meas­ured by time spent read­ing, and wheth­er the par­tis­an gave any cred­it to the ar­gu­ment. The over­all res­ult was not sur­pris­ing: When Demo­crats read the Re­id ed­it­or­i­al, they’d spend more time with it and they liked it more than the Mc­Con­nell one. The same went for Re­pub­lic­ans and Mc­Con­nell. The text of the ed­it­or­i­al was the same in each con­di­tion.

But then Con­over and Miller broke the res­ults down by gender.

“Wo­men were cer­tainly not im­mune to the bi­as­ing ef­fect,” they con­cluded. “But they demon­strated sig­ni­fic­antly less re­jec­tion of the out­party ar­gu­ment than men.” They spent more time read­ing the ar­gu­ment, eval­u­ated it less harshly, and were more will­ing to sup­port the po­s­i­tion. Sum­ming up: They were more will­ing to con­sider the op­pos­ing side. Among men and wo­men most sens­it­ive to polit­ic­al dis­cus­sion, men rated the op­pos­ing party’s ed­it­or­i­al 2.4 points worse on a 36-point scale.

But why are wo­men bet­ter listen­ers?

Here’s how par­tis­an bi­as usu­ally works. It’s kind of a “path-to-the-dark­side” pro­gres­sion: Our party iden­tit­ies get tied with our per­son­al iden­tit­ies. When there’s an at­tack on our party, we take it as an at­tack on ourselves. When we’re at­tacked, we get anxious. When we’re anxious, we’re de­fens­ive. When we are de­fens­ive, there’s a great­er in­cent­ive to pro­tect the party than, let’s say, ac­cept troub­ling facts. What Miller and Con­over con­clude is that wo­men have less anxi­ety about threats to their parties. Be­ing less anxious means be­ing less de­fens­ive, which res­ults in bet­ter polit­ic­al dia­log.

You don’t need a sci­entif­ic study to know that wo­men make for good polit­ic­al com­mu­nic­at­ors. It was wo­men, after all, who ended the shut­down stale­mate in Oc­to­ber 2013. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, fed up with lack of move­ment to re­open the gov­ern­ment, re­cruited a bi­par­tis­an group to get ne­go­ti­ations go­ing again, in­clud­ing fel­low fe­male Re­pub­lic­an Lisa Murkowski. “I prob­ably will have re­tri­bu­tion in my state,” Murkowski told The New York Times of the ne­go­ti­ations with Demo­crats. “That’s fine. That doesn’t both­er me at all.” Clearly, she wasn’t show­ing anxi­ety. She was lead­ing the way.

On a na­tion­al sur­vey in­cluded in the study, wo­men in­dic­ated less anxi­ety at the pro­spect of in­ter­act­ing with polit­ic­al op­pon­ents. Where­as with men, their par­tis­an iden­tity pre­dicted their levels of anxi­ety, wo­men stayed on an even keel. “Wo­men were sig­ni­fic­antly less anxious than men at all levels of par­tis­an iden­tity [i.e. how polit­ic­al you are],” the pa­per finds. And those most anxious about polit­ic­al con­flict are the least likely to be open to in­ter­act­ing with op­pon­ents. “More anxious par­tis­ans en­gaged in less cross-party polit­ic­al dis­cus­sion.” Anxi­ety aside, men over­all, re­por­ted less will­ing­ness to listen, a sci­entif­ic con­clu­sion that shouldn’t sur­prise [in­sert mar­riage joke here].


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