As you may have heard, the world’s economy has had a bit of a hiccup of late.
OK, not so much of a hiccup, more of a rapid tattoo of gutwrenching paroxysms. Our global dosh donkey was last seen coughing up its lungs into a bloody puddle all over a copy of the Wall Street Journal. (I hope you don’t come here for incisive economic analysis, because that’s about as technical as I get.)
Explanations for the crisis have come from all sides and in all flavours, but one particular theory has proved astonishingly stubborn. Apparently it is insufficient to note that, over many years, politicians encouraged a minuscule elite of avaricious bankers, traders and financiers to become caught in a spiral of risk, fraud and amorality, selling each other money that didn’t exist and then buying it back with money they didn’t have for ever higher rates while taking their cut at every stage. Oh no. There wasn’t anything wrong with that system at all. The real problem was that there was too much masculinity.
The best expression of this theory is the ubiquitous quip, usually attributed to either Christine Lagarde or Harriet Harman, that the crash would not have happened if Lehman Brothers had been Lehman Sisters. It wasn’t a bad joke, unless you’re particularly sensitive to gentle misandry and playground level gender essentialism, but it wasn’t exactly serious analysis either. Doubtless it would have withered in the mists of time if it hadn’t been for the media’s enthusiasm for a certain thread of research psychology, which investigates the relationship between the neuroscience of gender and the psychology of risk-taking behaviour.
Every few weeks another study comes out which uses some measure of supposed male-brain thinking or testosterone levels to explain why the traders just kept spinning that roulette wheel for one more juicy return rather than, presumably, toddling off home to cuddle a kitten and curl up with a nice Maeve Binchy.
Last week the Guardian – which has perhaps been the most enthusiastic proponent of this argument – ran a piece by Ian Leslie, author of Born Liars, which revisited the issue at length.
“Put a bunch of confident, aggressive men in the same room and reward them for taking risks, and you create a pressure cooker, from which probity and prudence evaporate like steam.”
On Thursday the BBC’s This Week ran a lead feature piece by the improbably named author and ex-banker Barbara Stcherbatcheff, arguing why women make better city bankers, with all the usual stereotypes about aggressive men and more careful, thoughtful women.
And now the influential Freakonomics blog has picked up on a study mentioned in the BPS Research Digest, which appears to show that if you make a man feel insecure about his masculinity, he will compensate with greater risk taking. The BPS Digest speculates about the part that masculinity may have played in past and present financial crises and the authors themselves are quoted as saying: “Whether manhood threats were directly implicated in the recent financial crises that continue to plague the US [and UK] economy, the current findings are at least consistent with such an interpretation… Certainly, they are suggestive enough to warrant further investigation into this critically important question.”
Before I say anything else, let me first acknowledge that I haven’t read the full paper, which does not appear to have been published yet, so the following comments are based purely on second hand reports. But from what I’ve read – I like this study. It’s one of those cheap and cheerful little experiments that uses imaginative tactics to manipulate subjects’ sense of gender identity, and then demonstrates impact upon decision making. On its own terms, it appears to be quite a cute little experiment with real world applications, albeit with a lot of unanswered questions still hanging.
What I do not understand is how it relates to the financial crisis. Actually I’d go further, I’m completely bamboozled as to how the chuffing buggery anyone could think it does.
Imagine for a moment that the results of this study had been the precise opposite – that after being made to feel less masculine and manly, subjects had gone on to take fewer and lesser risks in a gambling test, how would this have been spun? Without a shadow of doubt, we would have been told that this proves irresponsible financial decision-making is caused by an excess of masculinity. As it is, we find here that it is making guys feel less manly, not more, that drives their risk-taking. Confused? Good. It’s not just me then.
The only way this could help explain the financial crisis would be if we thought the bankers responsible for the crash were a bunch of shrinking violets, riven with insecurity about their own masculinity and desperate to prove themselves manly to their peers. Really? Maybe this is true, but it does rather fly in the face of everything else we’ve been told for the past four years or so. Heads I win, tails you lose.
We seem to be looking at perfectly circular logic here. Male gender insecurity leads to higher risk taking, traders were mostly men who took too many risks, therefore their risk-taking must prove they were insecure about their masculinity, which must have caused them to take too many risks.
Or maybe, just maybe, their masculinity was largely irrelevant to their decision making?
There is something discomfiting about the enthusiasm of so many to attribute responsibility for the current crisis to this one specific trait of those involved. My masters degree was in psychology and there are six years of postgraduate research buried in the depths of my CV, I remain passionate about the value of experimental research in understanding human behaviour and cognition. Neuroscience, in particular, offers the most exciting breakthroughs in our understanding that our species has ever known.
And if neuroscience thus far has taught us anything, it is that the brain is malleable, changeable, it has plasticity. If you put someone in a situation that benefits from more testosterone, oestrogen or oxytocin, our neurology and endocrine system will quickly oblige. If you raise boys to be aggressive risk-takers, their bodies will produce more testosterone and their brains will begin to expect it. Those raised to be aggressive risk-takers will choose a career which rewards those traits.
The people on the trading floor were there because they had chosen and were chosen to play the role required of them. Their behaviour was not steered by their hormones, but by their employers, their clients and the system in which they worked. Amoral greed was the principle tool of their trade. Had Lehman Brothers been Lehman Sisters, those women would not have been a happy family of cuddly feminist Earth mothers but a ruthless clique of sharp, amoral, capitalist vultures, all but indistinguishable from their male equivalents. The force driving this behaviour was not neurology, but rampant corporate greed, with each individual just a cog in the machine.
I find it faintly depressing that some of those pushing the ‘Lehman Sisters’ line have been self-identified feminists. They seem oblivious to the dangers of pushing the line that men are more ‘natural’ risk takers and aggressive traders. It not only accepts a really dull and archaic model of gender essentialism, it also opens a door to employers to say, well, the high-paid position I’m filling here requires an aggressive, courageous, risk-taker, so of course I’ll appoint a man! In truth, I suspect what is driving the logic of Harman and Lagarde is not so much their feminism as their respective professional positions – up to their eyeballs in the fetid midden of modern capitalism.
I welcome any research that helps us to understand human behaviour and cognition. I’m fascinated (if often unconvinced) by research into the neuroscience of gender and eagerly anticipate the next breakthrough. Nonetheless I’m extremely wary of a media narrative that seems to have selected masculinity as a convenient scapegoat for the crisis of neoliberal capitalism.
Don’t watch the gender. Watch the agenda.
Swapped emails today with the authors of the threatened manhood study. They graciously pointed out that their work does not depend upon gender essentialism – the results they find are more in keeping with gender effects being socially constructed, and they lean towards that side of the debate (as do I, of course). Very happy to clarify that I’m not suggesting Weaver, Bandello and Bosson are gender essentialists!
They also kindly sent me a copy of the full paper. It is interesting. Still no evidence for the idea that men involved in the financial crisis were experiencing any kind of ‘manhood threats’ at the time of the crisis, so my “how the chuffing buggery?” question still stands, I think!