Men Still Terrible at Detecting Subtle Emotional Cues From Women


NEW STUDY SAYS: Men aren’t so great at guessing your emotions, but they can read dudes like they were separated at birth with the exact same ball sack. Is it because you’re a master bluffer with dead eyes, or because they are biologically hard-wired to put bros before hos? It’s both! It’s neither! What it is is dumb.

But first, the study: 22 men ranging in age from 21 to 52 were left alone with their penises and asked to look at 36 pairs of human eyes. Some of the eyes belonged to women, and some belonged to men, but the penises were never up for grabs.

Dicks in pants, they were asked to choose actual words to describe the emotions behind the eyes they were peeping. And then the dumb: Neither age nor penis helped them decipher the emotional state of the vagina-owned eyes they gazed into very well. But give them a set of eyes they could call their own and it’s as if there were some discerning evolutionary advantage at work:

In addition, their brains showed different activation when looking at men versus women’s eyes. Men’s amygdala — a brain region tied to emotions, empathy, and fear — activated more strongly in response to men’s eyes. In addition, other brain regions tied to emotion and behavior didn’t activate as much when the men looked at women’s eyes.
The findings suggest that men are worse at reading women’s emotions. This “theory of mind” is one of the foundations for empathy, so the deficit could lead men to have less empathy for women relative to men, the researchers write.
But exactly why this happens isn’t clear. While men could be culturally conditioned to pay less attention to women’s emotional cues, another possibility is that their differential response is hard-wired by humans’ evolutionary past.
“As men were more involved in hunting and territory fights, it would have been important for them to be able to predict and foresee the intentions and actions of their male rivals,” the researchers write in the paper.

Ugh, either this is the answer to all the sexism of all time ever, or it’s just a reminder that next time your husband “forgets” to bring you flowers, just remember: He used to have worry about buffalo, OK honey? He’s not good at that yet. Give him another 10 million years?

I’m at a loss as to what to do with studies like this. Why are our conclusions drawn as if the only framework for how man can think about a woman derives from ancient mating rituals and fight-or-flight patterns? Up next: Guy who bumped into you and spilled your coffee thought you were cute; worried ancient warrior was approaching.

Seriously. I’m glad men are having some penis-to-penis eye-reading camaraderie. That’s valid! Women have it too, and it’s great. Sometimes when I’m in line for groceries another woman will turn to me and say, “I can tell you’re about to get your period in about three hours, so I grabbed this new In Style for you.” LOVE IT.

But a lot of us venture out and hang with the opposite genders, and sometimes even marry them and breed, so it probably behooves us to develop some skills in bridging the great Venus-Mars gap, what you might call the Grand Canyon of misunderstanding between us that studies only want to help with. And hey, I’m no study hater. Studies are great! Study everything, study it all, study why I like tacos right before my period but couldn’t care less about them two weeks after my period. Tell me all the reasons behind all the (period) things!

But when such studies continue to seek out these tiny differences between us — especially when loads more studies show that psychological gender differences overlap more than differ it feels on misguidedly purpose, like the very framework for figuring out what matters is loaded in some direction that is meant to give a pass where a roadmap is desperately needed instead.

But none of that holds a candle to real craw-sticker here: I don’t want a guy to read my mind anyway. Do you? Do you really? Is that what people think we want to happen in the first fucking place? Sure, it’s better to be intuitive in relationship situations, or in human to human situations. We all need to be better at reading each other and sensing the impact of our own actions on others.

But that said, the way out of this is through, and relationships, weird, murky guessing-games that they are, are strengthened not by being better at guessing feelings, but by communicating. Not by working harder at mind-reading, but working harder at opening your mouth and saying sentences about what you think, want, desire, feel, hate, etc. That is how the heavy lifting gets done. Could we talk more about that? If not, definitely let me know if you find those mythical feelings-guessing X-ray glasses.

Image via Masson/Shutterstock.

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