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Understanding Men – Part 1

 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.

Regarding efficiency 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 “propulsion.”

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 mind.


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 video games.

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 space!

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 partner’s responses.

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

Robert Solley

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 Noe Valley in San Francisco. He is also part of the Psyched in San Francisco staff of therapists.

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