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Women guilty of feeling too guilty, study shows

Men are guilt-deficient, while women suffer from destructive guilt largely imposed by society, suggests a recent Spanish study.

Kim Moldofsky can feel guilt over just about anything — her children, stray cats, her work, her husband. “I am easily guilted,” she told me, laughing.

Meanwhile, her husband, Brad, 41, remains blissfully guilt-free. “He is kind and caring but he can be more detached,” said Moldofsky, a 41-year-old “mom blogger” and social media strategist near Chicago. “Sometimes I want him to get caught up in the emotion.”

So, apparently, does a team of Spanish psychological researchers. In a reversal of Professor Henry Higgins’ plaintive cry “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?,” it suggested that when it comes to guilt, men should be more like women.

Men are guilt-deficient, suggests the study, which was published in a recent issue of The Spanish Journal of Psychology. We lack “interpersonal sensitivity,” while women suffer from destructive guilt largely imposed by society.

So women need support, while men need fixing. “This study highlights the need for educational practices and socializing agents to reduce the tendency towards anxious-aggressive guilt in women, and to promote interpersonal sensitivity in men,” write the authors of the study, which was led by Dr. Itziar Extebarria of the Unversity of the Basque Country in Spain.

The implication is that if only men could be fixed, maybe John Edwards wouldn’t be a baby daddy and maybe Abu Ghraib would just be a little-known prison in Iraq.

To Christina Hoff Sommers, a philosopher at the American Enterprise Institute and author of “The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism is Harming Our Young Men,” this sounds like yet another example of the social sciences pathologizing plain old maleness.

Using such a study to explain Edwards or Tiger Woods, she said, which is what some of the media and blog coverage of this study did, “risks confusing the issue. Anytime you study men and women, and ask them about their emotions; women always admit to a far more complex range of emotions … .These studies always make me wonder if they are really just measuring basic sex differences.”

The answer is yes, explained Elizabeth Shirtcliff, a psychologist and behavioral endocrinologist at the University of New Orleans. The fact is, men are supposed to feel guilt less intensely because men are, generally, less empathetic than women. It’s the way evolution made us. But few people want to talk about it in those terms.

“Unfortunately, this is controversial,” sighed Shirtcliff. “Anytime you talk about gender differences there are politics involved.” For example, she said, “it does not fit with our modern egalitarian view we want to raise boys with.”

The research team tested 360 men and women from three age groups. The participants described how they would feel in a series of scenarios such as, “You have forgotten that today is one of your friends’ or relations’ birthday and you know that this type of thing is very important to him/her, and that he/she likes people to remember.”

It's genetic
The results led to researchers to conclude that “habitual guilt [by which they mean a kind of internalized feeling of guilt] was more intense in women than in men in all three age groups studied.” When it came to “interpersonal guilt,” the kind of guilt related to how our action or inaction affects others, it was “significantly more intense in women than in men in the adolescent group, and in the 25-33 age group, the pattern of results was similar.” Older men, however, achieved a kind of interpersonal guilt parity with women.

It's worth noting that the researchers focused on the Spanish cultural context and the three-legged sack race run over the backs of the Spanish people by the fascist Francisco Franco dictatorship and its happy enablers in the Catholic Church. That oppression may still be reverberating, they suggested.

But Franco died in 1975, 35 years ago. The 25-33 year olds in the study have been raised on Almodovar films, the legalization of gay marriage and globalized digital culture. And other studies outside the Spanish context have shown similar results.

So the differences in the feelings of guilt between men and women are not cultural. At their root, they are genetic. “We do not want to say there are differences, but that does not take away from the fact that gender differences are staring us in the face,” Shirtcliff said.

In his book "The Essential Difference," the Cambridge University neuroscientist Simon Baron-Cohen (cousin of Sacha of “Borat” fame) wrote: “The female brain is predominately hard-wired for empathy. The male brain is predominately hard-wired for understanding and building systems.”

That’s a generalization, of course. These traits exist on a bell curve with some women being naturally more systems-oriented and some men being naturally more empathetic, but the generally greater female capacity for empathy matters because guilt depends on empathy.

Both Shirtcliff and Sommers refer to sex differences as complementary rather than oppositional. Women have been endowed by evolution with neurochemicals that promote mothering, nurturing, bonding. Empathy is required for all three.

The differences can be seen from a baby’s first days. Girl infants in hospital nurseries are more likely than boys to experience crying “contagion” — to start crying because they hear another baby crying. Give toys to toddler monkeys and humans and boys will go for trucks and cars, girls will go for stuffed animals and dolls.

Shirtcliff has experienced this herself, with her two boys. “I have dozens of little cars and truck and trains around my house,” she said, laughing, and “not a single bow. … We’ll be driving down the street and suddenly my youngest will scream ‘It’s a fire truck!’ like that’s the most exciting thing in the world.

“Empathy is wonderful,” she continued. “We can share emotions. We can feel someone else’s pain. But that comes at a cost, and that cost is the higher preponderance of anxiety and depressive disorders” in women.

On the other hand, men generally feel guilt less intensely, partly because we have a huge testosterone payload. It makes us take more chances, be more a little more callous about our actions, not spend time worrying about our decisions once they’re made. This is good, argued Sommers. “Men may be more stoical and that may be adaptive for society. We need to have 25-30 year old men not ruminating” but building, sometimes even fighting.

The downside is that men risk engaging in what Shirtcliff calls “hypermasculine” behavior. We can become bullies, even, at the far extremes, rapists and torturers.

That's where civilization comes in. While we are driven by our respective biologies, civilization can help impose some constructive control on how our genes are expressed. So rather than trying to make men more like women, Sommers suggested, society should help men express their innate masculinity in productive ways. She uses an old-fashioned word to describe what she means: “gentlemen.”

Biology itself can give men more empathy. When men bond with women, and help raise a family, our testosterone levels drop, our oxytocin levels rise, and, by the time we’re older, we do indeed become more empathetic and more receptive to at least some forms of guilt just as the Spanish study showed.

Shirtcliff jokingly called this progression “men as slow learners.” She also suggested that there is a good way to increase male empathy besides changing society. “I am happily married and if you want a bit of oxytocin, try the natural way: have an orgasm!”