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Sexual stereotypes, Generalizations, and Pattern Recognition

By March 18, 2004culture

The other day a woman I know made the offhand comment: “Men are obssessed with breasts.” By this she meant that men were more likely to be interested in a woman with large breasts. I’ve learned to let these sort of provocative generalizations pass. First, keeping in mind it is a ‘generalization’ (and ignoring the provocative use of the word “obssessed”), it is more or less true that men are sexually stimulated by visual things more than women are (a point confirmed by this article in the New York Times).

I have also learned when I hear this sort of statement from women not to respond with the equally applicable generalization that women are more likely to be interested in a man who is financially well off. This point also appears to be confirmed by the New York Times article. Of course, the article is simply talking about general tendencies in the context of evolutionary traits that enhance the likelihood of survival. Obviously, not all men are stimulated by large breasts and not all women are focused on finding a mate who is financially successful (aka a ‘good provider’ in the parlance of evolutionary biologists).

The problem with generalizations is that people often make them in a callous or flippant manner that invites objection. But, since we were talking about evolutionary traits, I think it should be noted that the ability of the human race to make generalizations is itself a nice survival tool (i.e. let’s see now, the prey we are hunting seem to be congregating near the watering hole with great frequency so maybe we should hunt over there more often).

Perhaps the ability to make generalizations is not as important as it once was, but I still think that it is important in the sense that pattern-recognition will always be something we want our brains to be good at. What’s needed is for people to realize that they are prone to making generalizations. Then perhaps they can work on analyzing the generalizations their brains so easily create to see if they are valid in a particular context. Of course, getting people to realize this is obviously a top-priority of our government and the people who run our mass media, right?


P.S. If you appreciate these kinds of observations, you might want to read this as well.

3 Comments

  • speedwell says:

    Not to be crude… but if we women spent as much time scrutinizing the bank statements of various men as you guys spend scrutinizing the frontage of various women, you’d undoubtedly say we were “obsessed” with your financial status.

  • Heidi says:

    What a well-structured argument in your last sentence, David.I can hardly disagree without proving you correct. 🙂

  • I agree that the ability to make generalizations is (in general) highly important to the human race, as is the additional skill of recognizing exceptions. Of course, a generalization needs to be valid more often than not to be useful, and in some areas a generalization needs to be highly precise to have any value.

    I’ve often thought that there would be a lot less strife between people (especially genders) if we agreed to give the person making a generalization the benefit of the doubt — that is, unless he or she specifically says otherwise, we recognize that the speaker does not mean every single member of the subject group always has a particular characteristic, or always has it to the same degree.

    Having said that, it is rather annoying to be living at a time when only one gender seems to be allowed to generalize about the other gender’s negative faults without being ostracized (or degendered).

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