The Blame Game: Battle of the Sexes

I was reading a recent article in The Atlantic about the widespread fears that successful women wouldn’t be able to get married when they decided to do so, which is increasingly later in life.  The article made an excellent point that these fears were driven not by good scientific data, but rather by the subjective experiences of women who were self-reporting that it was extremely difficult to find a marriageable man.

Several decades ago, this was largely blamed on the women themselves.  High-achieving women with good careers were blamed for setting impossibly high standards or waiting too long to choose a man to marry, because it was assumed that their professional success would not coexist with marriage and familial success.  Now we know after the fact that many of these women have either made peace with being single, were happy with being single all along, or were able to find a mate (or series of mates), albeit perhaps with more difficulty.

And if women who want to be married think that, on balance, successful careers are worth the trade-off of more difficulty in finding a mate, then we should respect that instead of telling them they waited too long.  Maybe they knew exactly what they were doing and the rest of society just didn’t understand what they valued more highly.  On the other hand, maybe society didn’t really communicate to women that there would be costs to choosing a successful career first (as there are costs to any choice in life).

If a society makes changes without understanding and making clear the downstream consequences, which is how we usually make changes, then that seems pretty likely to create confusion for the people dealing with those consequences.  It seems to me that the blame rests on the society as a whole for not being very helpful to those dealing with the consequences of its collective decisions.

Of course, not everyone agrees.  One of the first comments on The Atlantic’s Facebook post linking to the article blames men for the problem that doesn’t seem to really exist according to the article.  A reader charges men en masse with dating women who are less successful because they are more impressed by their man’s success than a comparatively successful woman would be.  And also because younger women who have not had time to become so successful are often a status symbol for the older men who can marry them.

Just as women’s unwillingness to lower their standards and waiting too long were blamed for women’s difficulties in finding marriageable men by those who thought that expecting women to be career-oriented was a mistake, those who think that expectation was entirely the correct thing are inclined to blame male foibles for their difficulties in finding marriageable men.

It’s not that there are no cases of individual women having impossibly high standards and still expecting that they deserve a mate.  It’s also not that there are no cases of individual men dating younger women for reasons that have to do with their childish insecurities in addition to a normal evolutionary instinct to select for women of peak child-bearing age.  These things certainly do happen.  But to claim that they explain the situation is to commit an attribution error.

This strikes me as the usual Blame Game, a process I’ve written about before, an entertaining process by which we human beings show off our cognitive errors, demonstrate that we really don’t understand the complexities of our reality in general or causality in particular, and just find a scapegoat instead.  It’s the Battle of the Sexes edition of our typical failures to do appropriate self-examination and instead cast blame on someone we are already disposed to blame.

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