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Women and Men are Guilt Ships Passing in the Night

Posted Feb 26 2010 12:00am

Only occasionally do studies come out that improve the image of men as more than stubborn, violent and incorrigible beasts with malfunctioning moral compasses. The study I’m about to talk about isn’t one of them.

For this peek into male shortcomings, we turn to the Spanish Journal of Psychology . Researchers wanted to test the hypothesis that women in the West experience an especially high level of guilt as compared to men, and that these elevated guilt levels correlate with high levels of interpersonal sensitivity. 

Three hundred and sixty children, adolescents and adults were recruited and divided into male and female groups. Psychologists then put the groups through a battery of psychological tests to determine what elicits the participants’ feelings of guilt, and to gauge levels of interpersonal sensitivity.

What the research team found is that women in all three age groups experienced significantly higher feelings of habitual guilt than men, with the 40-50 year-old bracket experiencing the most. Female children and teens also experience more guilt than males in their respective age groups.

The correlation with interpersonal sensitivity followed suit for all age groups (women higher, men lower) – but, for men in the 25-33 age bracket the sensitivity score was especially low. The researchers noted that with such low scores, men in this group have a serious empathetic guilt handicap. Safe to say, not an appealing personality trait.

But there is some good news. Men in the 40-50 age bracket evidenced interpersonal sensitivity levels much closer to women’s.  When our (men’s) hubris starts waning in the neighborhood of 40, we start figuring out how to “connect” more effectively with others.

Unfortunately, there’s also more bad news. Just when men start figuring out the sensitivity thing, women in the 40-50 bracket begin developing high levels of “anxious-aggressive” guilt. This is habitual guilt of the worst kind because unlike empathetic guilt, which is sorrow for a person we have wronged in some way, anxious-aggressive guilt is all about bottled up unease and aggression—succinctly summarized in two words: powder keg. 

This is a shame. Men fumble along until near middle age before the empathetic sensitivity lights go on, and at the same time women—who are empathy masters for most of their lives—begin pulling their guilt inward. 

The trick to correcting the disconnect, according to this research, is to somehow short-circuit the development of anxious-aggressive guilt in women, and juice up the development of interpersonal sensitivity in men.

Easier said than done. But, remaining optimistic, if those two dynamics can become better aligned, perhaps the ships won’t have to pass each other in the night and might be more likely to drop anchor for a cocktail.

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