"Regardless of the causal direction, I do believe that things like systematizing and vulnerability to flooding operate largely at a level of evolutionarily determined neurological wiring. That doesn’t mean they can’t be influenced, but it’s not a simple matter." - Dr. Robert Solley
Understanding Men - Part 1
by Dr. Robert Solley
A Few Bold Statements
Men prioritize efficiency.
Men enjoy moving objects through space.
Men are systemizers.
And Then a Disclaimer
Obviously with a title like “Understanding Men,” I’m going
to be making some generalizations. So I
don’t have to repeat over and over that not all men are this way, that to
varying degrees women share these characteristics, and that not all of these features
are shared by every man, I’m stating this disclaimer at the outset. My hope, however, is that understanding some essential
principals about the male experience can help make sense of--and yield more
compassion for--the strange, beautiful (and sometimes frustrating!) internal
world of men.
Some Unusual Bedfellows
My opening statements come from some interesting sources who
might not ordinarily be grouped into the same article. They are statements that really grabbed my
attention when I first heard them, and which have been powerful organizing
forces in my understanding of both myself and other men.
The idea of prioritizing
efficiency, came from Tony Robbins in one of his seminar videos. How
many times have I heard a man arguing with his partner about how to pack the
car, organize a route, or hire contractors?
Often a key motivation for the man is the drive for efficiency. Important caveat: men are motivated by
efficiency, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will look efficient to other
people! Each person’s idea of efficiency
may be different from another’s.
I’ll also refer to David Deida. Despite
sounding obnoxious at times, I think he captures some essential aspects of
gender experience. In his view each person has a mix of masculine and feminine
energy in different proportions. Deida
describes male energy as going from point A to point B, like a ship crossing
the ocean. I’ve had clients describe the
male partner in a hetero relationship in exactly that point A to point B way. (By the way, in that analogy the ocean
represents the female energy – vast, powerful, interconnected and fluid. Neither is better or worse; each has their
strengths and weaknesses.)
The idea of moving objects through space, came from a
researcher I met at a conference in the 1980’s who was studying correlates of
intelligence. Ponder for a moment all
the “male” preoccupations: football, baseball, golf, soccer, cars, motorcycles,
planes, rockets, arrows, slingshots, guns, ad infinitum. Guys love to throw things, drive things,
propel things. For the sake of
efficiency in this article (J) I will refer to moving-objects-through-space as
And the idea of men as systemizers comes from Simon
Baron-Cohen’s fascinating book “The Essential Difference.” His central thesis is that men tend more
towards systemizing and women tend more toward empathizing. Systemizing is pretty much what it sounds
like: creating and organizing systems of (mostly) information. Listening to guys talking, especially with
each other, you’ll often hear lots of analysis, statistics, quantifying and
comparisons. Factoids, Wikipedia,
baseball cards, gambling, the stock market, Google – these ways of
categorizing, sorting, and divvying up the world are the currency of the male
Sports and Technology
Sports and technology are two cultural domains that live in
various quadrants of the intersection of propulsion and efficiency. Virtually all male-preferred sports involve a
competition to move an object from one place to another. Arguably efficiency plays a lesser role in
sports than in technology, but I would say that it is still a significant
consideration in most sports. With technology it’s the other way around. Most
technology is primarily about efficiency, but some technology involves
propulsion as well: vehicles, guns, and of course their virtual equivalents in
So now you can see why the male mind is spellbound by sports
and technology. On home remodeling shows
American men’s fixation with where the television is going to go and what the
setup will be is laughably predictable.
But it makes perfect sense when you realize that television is the
pinnacle of efficiency in being able to watch other guys move objects through
And what could be more efficient than smartphones? The world in the palm of your hand.
How Did Men Get This Way?
It’s extremely tempting to invoke the male-hunter,
evolutionary theory. Systemizing,
efficiency and propulsion (e.g., weaponry) are at the heart of optimizing
hunting and agriculture. Food production
has been one of the basic needs driving the development of technology, from
stone tools through the industrial revolution.
So it’s possible that “sexual division of labor” may be one source of
these male characteristics.
However, as much as it seems to fit, the evolutionary
evidence appears too mixed to make a solid case at this point. Baron-Cohen cites some compelling clues from
a variety of studies that testosterone plays a role in the development and
functioning of mammalian brains with respect to systemizing versus empathizing.
I’d like to offer another possibility having to do with male
vulnerability to cognitive/emotional overload.
John Gottman, the famous relationship researcher, discovered that men
are more vulnerable than women to becoming physiologically over-aroused during conflictual
conversations. Men's heart rates and
blood pressure go up as their bodies stage a fight or flight reaction. Gottman referrals to this as "flooding.”
In talking recently with a client about this, my client suggested the
possibility that men’s focus on efficiency and systematizing might be a way of
attempting to avoid overload.
This is an intriguing idea.
Of course it could run the other way around, which is that the male bias
towards efficiency and systematizing interferes with emotional regulation. Regardless of the causal direction, I do
believe that things like systematizing and vulnerability to flooding operate
largely at a level of evolutionarily determined neurological wiring. That doesn’t mean they can’t be influenced,
but it’s not a simple matter. It’s not
just something men can “choose” to do differently at a single decision point. Instead,
like many things, it takes effort towards incremental change over time. In relationship with another person, these
kinds of changes can either be hindered or encouraged depending on the
I hope I’ve shed some new light on what drives and organizes
the male mind. In my next article,
Understanding Men - Part 2, I’ll expand on how these male tendencies are
intertwined with western society, the part they play in problematic couples
cycles, and how to create a relational environment that helps foster a shift
from a systematizing focus to a more empathic one.
Robert Solley earned his Ph.D. in 1988 and has been licensed over
20 years. He
specializes in couples therapy, has been an associate with the Couples
Institute in Menlo Park for over five years, and has an active practice
in Hayes Valley, San Francisco. Check out his website at
www.Solutions4Couples.com or call him at 415 550-8725.
Labels: Dr. Robert Solley, Masculinity, Men