Saturday, October 27, 2012

Science Saturday: When Harry Met Science

One of my least favorite movies of all time is When Harry Met Sally. People love to trot out that overdone chestnut from Harry about how men and women can never really be friends because, quoting this study featured in Scientific American,
the opportunity (or perceived opportunity) for “romance” is often lurking just around the corner, waiting to pounce at the most inopportune moment.
First of all, I didn't realize love and violent criminals had so much in common!

The study looked at 88 pairs about 44 women of oppositely-sexed friends at a university. While I understand that undergrads are great psychology subjects, they represent only a small slice of society.  They don't have the maturity, wisdom, or temperance that might come with age. It would be interesting to see this study expanded to include pairs of friends at five year gaps (say, at 20, 25, 30, 35, etc) or to revisit these friends every five years to see what, if anything, changed.

Nonetheless, it yielded some interesting results.
Men were also more likely than women to think that their opposite-sex friends were attracted to them—a clearly misguided belief. In fact, men’s estimates of how attractive they were to their female friends had virtually nothing to do with how these women actually felt, and almost everything to do with how the men themselves felt—basically, males assumed that any romantic attraction they experienced was mutual, and were blind to the actual level of romantic interest felt by their female friends.
How much of this perception disparity could be associated with different socialization and culture norms? These are men that have grown up with the narrative of: "As long as you are a good guy and do the right thing, you get the girl you want at the end." David Wong from Cracked lays it all out:
We were told this by every movie, TV show, novel, comic book, video game and song we encountered. When the Karate Kid wins the tournament, his prize is a trophy and Elisabeth Shue. Neo saves the world and is awarded Trinity. Marty McFly gets his dream girl, John McClane gets his ex-wife back, Keanu "Speed" Reeves gets Sandra Bullock, Shia LaBeouf gets Megan Fox in Transformers, Iron Man gets Pepper Potts, the hero in Avatar gets the hottest Na'vi, Shrek gets Fiona, Bill Murray gets Sigourney Weaver in Ghostbusters, Frodo gets Sam, WALL-E gets EVE ... and so on.

...we, as the audience, know that in the end the hero will "get the girl," just as we know that at the end of the month we're going to "get our paycheck." Failure to award either is breaking a societal contract. The girl can say what she wants, but we all know that at the end, she will wind up with the hero, whether she knows it or not.
The only movie I know that turns this narrative on its head is Wet Hot American Summer. The love interest, Katie, tells her would-be nice guy suitor why she's not choosing him:
Listen, Coop - last night was really great. You were incredibly romantic and heroic, no doubt about it. And that's great. But I've thought about it, and my thing is this: Andy is really hot. And don't get me wrong, you're cute too, but Andy is like, *cut*. From marble. He's gorgeous. He has this beautiful face and this incredible body, and I genuinely don't care that he's kinda lame. I don't even care that he cheats on me. And I like you more than I like Andy, Coop, but I'm 16. And maybe it'll be a different story when I'm ready to get married, but right now, I am entirely about sex. I just wanna get laid. I just wanna take him and grab him and fuck his brains out, ya know? So that's where my priorities are right now. Sex. Specifically with Andy and not with you.
You could write a whole women's studies thesis on whether this plot device empowers women (she makes her own choice instead of being a reward for the hero) or is a Nice Guy entitlement anti-fantasy (the only reason a girl wouldn't choose a Nice Guy is because she's shallow and after sex), but it's a nice departure from the standard narrative nevertheless.

Presumably men raised on a pop culture diet where the people they identify with are more or less awarded a girl of their choice would be more likely to see themselves as viable romantic candidates than women who take away something different from the same diet. (For example: "Since I don't even look like Hollywood plain, let alone Hollywood pretty, I'm not a viable romantic partner for anyone.")

Which leads me to my next point: another factor that (I think) would come into play here is confidence. When you feel crappy about yourself, you're not likely to assume that people want to get in your pants. And the pop culture diet that feeds the typical American self-image is pretty damn good at making women feel crappy about themselves!  Did the experimenters have the participants take a brief survey about the participants' confidence, self-esteem, and self-image before interrogating them about their friendships? The article doesn't say, so I'm going to assume not. It would be interesting to see how self-esteem correlated to responses as well (or if there would be any correlation at all).

Finally, nothing in the study suggests that unspoken romantic or sexual attraction has a negative impact on the friendship. While the title of the article ("Men And Women Can't Be 'Just Friends,'" emphasis mine) would seem to imply that friendship that involves unrequited attraction cannot happen, there is nothing in the study that conclusively proves this point. Let me repeat that: this study does not conclusively prove the impossibility of true friendship between men and women. All it proves is that men are more likely to think they have a chance at getting with their female friends than the other way around.

Nonetheless I look forward to this study going viral and giving idiots even more fodder to support the broken "men and women can't be friends" paradigm. Ugh.

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