Men at Work: The Debt Ceiling and the Effect of Women on Group Intelligence
When I was in high school I found a manilla envelope marked “Divorce” in the desk in my dad’s office. We should have a word to describe moments like this, when a number of powerful and previously unconsidered thoughts come flooding in, a reminder of the gap between the slow-moving conscious part of the brain and the athletically reactive subconscious parts. So they were getting divorced. The amorphous personas of mother and father that had circumscribed the limits of my known universe were about to split apart, leaving me vulnerable to a hoard of wild and unfiltered realities waiting to upend my tiny little life. I pulled out a few papers and read the words on them without understanding any of it, the legal jargon reflected none of my shock. And the idea switched almost instantly from inconceivable to unavoidable in my head.
The argument over how to raise America’s debt ceiling feels in many ways like a divorce proceeding. It’s less a debate of ideas and more a negotiation of an endpoint for the government’s support of those most in need, which encircled American society and keep it from having to confront the inconceivable over the last half century. Spending on the country’s three biggest social support programs–Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid–collectively account for the a majority of the country’s long-term deficit and so two and a half political factions are squirming to cut out these ballooning inconveniences while simultaneously retaining enough ideological dignity to squeak through one more election.
Two years ago there was an attempt at a debate about how to slow the increase of medical costs and use government-leveraged spending power to cut the oligarchic torniqueting of prices that are co-equal contributors to the untenability, not simply of Medicare and Medicaid, but the healthcare market as a whole. That debate was had by one side and boycotted by the other. It led to a perplexingly unpopular bill that is nonetheless mostly popular when broken up into smaller pieces. Putting things into a larger picture makes it possible to have irrational disgust for a thing that, when considered in individual qualities wouldn’t be possible. The time for appreciating good qualities is over and now the only argument is who gets a bigger percentage of the estate once it’s dissolved.
We have seen the furrowed faces of men irrationally entrenched in variations on the same position and yet insisting they are in conflict. Both sides want to be released from the cage of their former obligations and they both want to inflict the most amount of pain on the other side before co-signing the exit papers. It’s hard to imagine a stupider and more masculine expression of political duty.
In many of the White House meetings on the issue there are only one or two women among the rabble of collared negotiators. Nancy Pelosi is surrounded by Eric Cantor, John Boehner, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Mitch McConnell, Timothy Geitner, Harry Reid, and Steny Hoyer. It should be hard, in 2011, to find a room of such macho composition. Women presently make up 16% of congress, a figure that actually shrank in 2010–the first time in 30 years. Not surprisingly, 2010 was the election year in which entrenched antagonism to the opposite party was rewarded with a quasi-Republican insurgency in the House of Representatives. Candidates earned public admiration not because of interesting policy proposals but because of an exciting vehemence in dressing down the other party. It had the unintentionally pathetic air of two men nose-to-nose trying to induce the other to take the first swing, thereby absolving the one of responsibility for having turned himself into an attacking animal. It doesn’t matter if the insults are true, and they tend to be almost unanimously untrue, they only need to have a negative effect on the other person.
In a newly published paper on group intelligence, Anita Woolley, an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon, and Thomas Malone, a professor at MIT, found that the biggest contributing factor to raising a group’s IQ was its prevalence of women. Popular wisdom would suggest that the smartest groups are those with individual members of high intelligence, but there seems to be no real correlation between individual intelligence and the resulting group intelligence. But having women in a group, and especially in the majority, led to consistently smarter outcomes in two tests that asked groups to perform some basic tasks like brainstorming, decision making, visual puzzle solving, and finding a solution to one complex problem.
In an interview with the Harvard Business Review, Woolley said “part of that finding can be explained by differences in social sensitivity, which we found is also important to group performance. Many studies have shown that women tend to score higher on tests of social sensitivity than men do. So what is really important is to have people who are high in social sensitivity, whether they are men or women.”
Doubtless, most of the people involved in the argument over the debt ceiling and the national deficit have relatively high IQ’s, and yet they have made the pretext one of siding with either European socialist demagogues or an unheeled rabble incapable of eating their peas and getting their homework done. This is not a debate in any way, but an acrimonious fight for alimony and a bigger piece of equity in the house, which is inevitably going to be sold off in the dissolution of the relationship that neither side can stomach any longer.
Men are not destined to be natural drags on collective intelligence, but we tend toward a way of interacting with one another that favors aggressive crises followed by long periods of emotional detente. A 2000 study conducted at UCLA found that the neuroendocrine response to stress and threat are largely similar in men and women. In both sexes the specter of conflict causes the brain to release the same basic volume and variety of hormones into the bloodstream, and yet the behaviors that this causes are remarkably different. Men tend to view threats in terms of dominance, preferring to stay and fight if they perceive an advantage or else running away if they’re overmatched.
Women generally defuse conflict and try to create social bonds that stitch over a perceived offense. The male response can produce only two outcomes, forced submission through conflict or defaulting immediately to submission by retreating. Given that the biological prompts are shared between the sexes it’s reasonable to assume that whatever leads to such dramatic behavioral differences is a product of culture and social expectations of gender performance.
In our male dominated argument over fiscal debt, we largely have two outcomes, either one side will capitulate to the the other and demonstrate its political submissiveness, or else both will go through with the conflict, creating an economic implosion that will leave both sides beaten–though each side seems to think the other will be more hurt by the beating. All the particularities of a debate about why individual programs exists, why it will begin to operate at a deficit in the coming years, and whether or not it’s really an issue to have a government program operating at a deficit in the first place (it seems government programs exist to ensure certain basic social needs that cannot be profitable on their own in a free market) will not be had anymore.
Instead we have a masculine brinksmanship that will, in both possible outcomes, be unproductive. The only thing really at stake is whether or not real harm will be required to reach that outcome.
My parents never divorced for a variety of reasons I don’t completely understand. But they never fell back in love with one another and in the intervening years they conducted their lives in persistent emotional combat, alternating between moments of mournful tolerance and vicious outbursts of perceived betrayal. Growing up in that unrelentingly anxious environment I subconsciously came to expect this as the unavoidable end state of all relationships. There must always come a period when the loving and optimistic promises of years past suddenly seem unrealistic, debts that are impossible to pay off. Things we say to one another while naively building forward, hypnotized by the invisible witchcraft of our idealism and hormones.
At the end it’s not that the promises were impossible but that the will to go through with them while partnered with the disgustingly sack of aging organs and odors beside you goes away. We cannot let go until everything is torn apart and sold for scrap, until even the smell of you makes me sick.
** “Defend Your Research: What Makes a Team Smarter? More Women” (Harvard Business Review)
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