Power needs no explanation

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Power needs no explanation

by Devon Magliozzi on Friday, October 9, 2015 - 12:37pm

In any given category, there are certain members who serve as prototypes. Ostriches and robins are both birds, but when we think about the category “bird,” robins are more likely to come to mind. In other words, while a category may contain a range of types of members, people tend to have a prototype in mind when thinking of a typical member of a category. According to psychologist Dale Miller, the director of the Stanford Graduate School of Business Center for Social Innovation, when we explain differences between members of a category, we explain why the less prototypical members do not resemble their prototypical counterpoints. When explaining an ostrich’s behavior, for example, we tend to ask, “Why don’t ostriches fly?instead of“Why don’t robins walk? 

dale millerIn a social context, this system of assigning a prototype, or norm, can shed light on the implicit values we attribute to various members of categories of people. The prototype becomes the standard by which we evaluate the other members of the category, even if they both exhibit the same behaviors or have the same level of achievement. Consequently, the prototype holds power and status in society.

Prototypes and politics: Why don’t women vote like men?

In a talk to the Clayman Institute Faculty Research Fellows, Miller called the audience’s attention back to 1988: George H.W. Bush was carrying the mantle of the Republican Party in the presidential election and he was trailing Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis for much of the campaign. As analysts and pundits searched for a reason, they eventually came to focus on women. Women were polling for Dukakis in high numbers; this, according to media outlets including “The New York Times,” was why Dukakis had a lead.

Miller was puzzled. Sure, there were reasons for women to support Dukakis’s candidacy, but what about men? Why weren’t men also flocking to Dukakis in the polls or else turning to Bush in equal numbers? More importantly, why wasn’t anyone asking this question?

Miller designed an experiment. He presented participants with facts about the election, but manipulated the wording. For example, in some scenarios, the gender gap was stated as a “male advantage” for Bush, while in others as a “female disadvantage.” Similarly, sometimes it was stated that Dukakis “saw a boost from females,” and others that he “faced a deficit among males.” Regardless of the phrasing, the outcome was the same: men and women alike made sense of the gender gap by explaining women’s behavior. While men’s voting was taken for granted, women’s voting patterns needed to be accounted for and rationalized.

The pervasiveness of prototypes

In the case of voting, history plays a role in determining the prototype. In the United States, women were not allowed to vote nationally until 1920. The 132 years that passed between the first presidential election and universal women’s suffrage was ample time for the association between men and voting to take root. However, such a history is not required for prototypes to be established.

Psychologists Susanne Bruckmüller and Andrea E. Abele conducted an experiment in which they invented fictitious groups. The groups differed in arbitrary ways—one hunted with harpoons, the other with spears; one cultivated yams, the other plantains. The researchers manipulated which group was explained and then asked participants to rate their status and power. Even with fictitious groups and arbitrary differences, participants consistently saw the group that was explained as lower status and less powerful.

 “We reinforce group power differences by explaining the least powerful group... and we infer power and status on the basis of who needs explaining.”

For Miller, these results and others point to the strong association between explanation and status. “We reinforce group power differences by explaining the least powerful group,” he says, “and we infer power and status on the basis of who needs explaining.” When Asian students outperform white students we explain the minority group’s over-performance; when black students score lower on exams than white students, we explain the minority group’s under-performance. In each case, white students are affirmed as the prototype and their performance is taken as the norm. Explanations of minority students limit the groups’ status and power regardless of their performance.

Don’t explain

Miller’s research suggests that women’s status and power will remain low so long as they are subject to constant explanation. However, eliminating explanations is trickier than it may sound. Researchers seeking to reduce gender inequality often focus their attention on institutions, public policy, or social structures that disadvantage women, in hopes of bringing their earnings, opportunities, esteem, etc. into line with men’s. While it is possible to flip such investigations and focus on mechanisms that advantage men, it is less desirable from a policy perspective to downgrade the advantaged group to match the disadvantaged. In other words, diminishing the status of men is seen as counterproductive to the goal of gender inequality.

"... it’s important not to accept that male is the norm, that male is the standard we have to achieve.”

Nonetheless, according to Miller, recognizing the importance of explanation yields tools for change. First, “you can refute the presupposition—challenge the assumption about what normal is.” On the ground, this means not indulging questions that start with, “Why do women…?or assuming that solutions begin with, “What can women do…?Miller concludes, “When advocating for women, it’s important not to accept that male is the norm, that male is the standard we have to achieve.” By realizing the significance of language, researchers are better equipped to confront the mechanisms of power and status. Researchers and activists must persist in questioning issues of gender inequality. As they do so, the question they ask cannot be, “What’s wrong with women?