In psychology, there’s a well-observed phenomenon known as the actor/observer bias and it states that we’re basically all a bunch of assholes.
The actor/observer bias states that all of us unconsciously assume others to be more responsible for their negative actions than their environment, and for ourselves to be less responsible for our negative actions than our environment.
For example, if you are at an intersection and someone runs through the red light and almost hits you, you think, “Wow, what a shitty driver. That guy is an idiot.” But when it’s YOU who runs the red light and almost hits somebody, you think, “It’s not my fault. The guy in front of me was driving slow and the light changed too quickly for me to stop.”
When it’s us, it’s not our fault. When it’s someone else, they’re a shitty person.
But it gets worse. The opposite happens with positive actions, too. In our own case, we over-estimate our own responsibility for the great things we do and under-estimate the responsibility of others. For example, if someone else wins a prestigious award, we make assumptions that they got it because of their connections or some sort of conspiracy and not of their own work. But if we win an award, we assume it was all because of the great work we did.
Nature Vs Nurture
But what’s interesting is when you take the Actor/Observer bias and add the nature versus nurture argument to it. The nature versus nurture argument is a philosophical debate that has been going on for centuries. It’s the debate over whether behavior is primarily determined by biology or by one’s environment and prior experiences.
The answer, of course, is it’s both. Both our biology and our environments are always determining our behavior at all times. And on top of that, our biology and our environment influence one another. For instance, having elevated testosterone will cause us to behave differently, but also being subjected to certain environmental factors can raise our testosterone.
But recently, with the discoveries of neuroplasticity and epigenetics in recent decades, most biologists these days concede that environment is overall a stronger determinant of specific behaviors than biology.
Biology defines the parameters of our behavior and creates our proclivities for certain behaviors (i.e., risk-taking, neuroticism, etc.), but ultimately our external influences and past experiences determine exactly how we behave at any given moment.
But regardless, the nature/nurture debate is still foggy. Is that person violent because they have a genetic predisposition to violence? Or did they grow up in a horribly violent environment? Why do some people come from horrible environments and become healthy, admirable people and others come from good environments and become despicable people?
These questions are not easily answered. And may never easily be answered.
The answer is always that it’s somewhere between the two but we’re never certain exactly where it is. And in these foggy nature/nurture situations, our actor/observer bias will often kick in and make us more likely to attribute the poor behavior of others to biology — the idea that they were simply born a bad person rather than influenced to do something — and attribute the bad behavior of ourselves to our environment our culture.
So if a co-worker is perpetually underpaid at work, we will attribute it to him/her being inherently stupid or incapable. Whereas if WE are perpetually underpaid at work, we attribute it to being screwed over by incompetent management.
I told you it makes us all assholes.
When the actor/observer bias comes joins up with the nature/nurture debate, I call this the biology bias — the assumption that other people or groups are biological predisposed to undesirable behavior, while our behavior is simply caused by a faulty culture.
You see the biology bias pop up in all sorts of places. Instead of dealing with the actual policy arguments of many conservatives, liberals simply whitewash them as being unintelligent and inherently selfish people. Conservatives do the same with liberals by making assumptions about how they’re inherently lazy and feel entitled. Both sides rarely stop to consider the environmental factors that caused the other side to have liberal/conservative views in the first place.
The biology bias becomes particularly dangerous in the context of racism. For centuries, Europeans enslaved Africans, Native Americans and Asians based on the assumption that they were of a different (and inferior) species, that they were somehow biologically less capable than their European colonizers. But it turns out, European societies enjoyed major geographical advantages that eventually allowed them to colonize the planet (Read Jared Diamond’s fascinating Guns, Germs and Steel for more on this subject.)
Much of this still goes on today. As T and I discussed on a podcast a few months ago, he’s been arguing with a group of so-called “Human Bio-Diversity” bloggers who believe that since the average African-American has an IQ 10 points lower than the average Anglo-American, they are therefore inherently stupider or less capable.
The Biology Bias and Sexism
“When racist and sexist ideologies sanction certain hierarchical social arrangements based on biology, that biology is usually false.”
– Theodore Kemper, Social Structure and Testosterone
In my book on dating, Models: Attract Women Through Honesty, I have a whole section in the middle of the book about defense mechanisms.
We all use defense mechanisms to avoid our anxieties and protect us from dealing with our shame. For instance, if we have a lot of sexual shame we may develop defense mechanisms such as rationalizing reasons to avoid sexual encounters, over-analyzing sexual situations, or over-compensating by trying to have sex with absolutely everything and everyone.
Another common defense mechanism is to stereotype a population, especially if we feel victimized by that particular population.
Women make an easy target for the biological bias because a) many men are perpetually frustrated by women and b) there are obvious biological differences between the two sexes (of the “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours” variety.)
Over the years, I’ve seen the following biological arguments made about women as a population: they will use a man for his resources and then move on (like locusts or something), they will lie and manipulate you to get you to like them more, they are overly emotional, they are less intelligent and incapable of rational thought, they seek sexual attention to make themselves feel better, they will cheat on you or leave you the minute a better option comes around, and so on.
None of these statements have any biological evidence backing them up. All of these statements only apply to certain individual women, some of whom cluster in certain locales (like say, I don’t know, sleazy clubs). All of the men who make these statements have a history of rejection or emotional trauma involving women.
Coincidence? I think not.
For me, this is the contradiction that underlies most of the manosphere literature out there and ruins it for me. Undesirable behavior from women (they’re manipulative, overly-emotional, hypergamous) is attributed to their inherent biology, while undesirable behavior from men (weak, feminized, too sensitive) is attributed to a culture forced upon them. You can’t have it both ways. Either you face up to the overly emotional, manipulative behavior in yourself as well as women, or you focus on the cultural effects on both genders. You can’t have it one way for one gender and the other way for the other.
But wait! There’s more!
Feminists are not immune to these types of actor/observer biases. These are just a few of the examples of reverse-sexism I’ve seen from the other side of the fence over the years:
If a woman fights her way to the top of the corporate ladder, it’s her ingenuity and hard work. If a man does, it’s only because he’s benefiting from patriarchy. If a man complains that a woman is being flirtatious, then she is sexually empowered. If a woman complains that a man is being flirtatious, it’s harassment. If a woman says she likes a strong man who takes care of his body, she is asserting her desires. If a man says he appreciates a woman who dresses up nice and wears high heels, he’s a pig.
Granted, many feminists side-step much of the biology bias by subscribing to the belief that culture defines everything. But they still fall victim to the actor/observer bias constantly, like the rest of us.
One could even go so far as to say that the so-called “battle of the sexes” is mostly just the biology bias in action. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:
Regardless of our gender, race, sexuality, nationality, religious beliefs or political beliefs, as humans our minds are bad at dealing with large populations. It’s too much data. Our minds take shortcuts in order to manage all of the information they consume. These shortcuts, if unchecked and unregulated, can easily turn us into bigoted assholes.
That goes for racists and reverse-racists. That goes for sexists and reverse-sexists. That goes for religious nuts and atheists. That goes from liberals and conservatives.
We are all equal in that we’re all biased against populations and groups who we don’t identify with. It’s unconscious and inevitable. But it’s only particularly evil if these biases are forged into long-term beliefs and later transmuted into actual prejudiced actions.
That is why practices such as mindfulness, therapy and meditation are so crucial. They help us not only become more objective about others, but also help us unravel the the biased beliefs and limitations we place on ourselves.
Or as Anaïs Nin once said: “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”