Men, women, and the joy of punishment.

Science, technology, and life.
Jan. 26 2006 1:32 AM

Men Are From Vengeance

Men, women, and the joy of punishment.

(Continued from Page 1)

A third question posed by Zogby proved the point. What if the thousands of casualties were "Iraqi military" instead of Iraqi civilians? In that scenario, women opposed war by five points, while men favored it by 33 points. The difference between men and women in this scenario was five points greater than in the scenario with U.S. troop casualties, and seven points greater than in the scenario with Iraqi civilian casualties. In short, being male raises your tolerance for foreign civilian casualties, but not as strongly as it raises your tolerance for foreign or even U.S. military casualties. Morality trumps xenophobia.

Are men really so scrupulous? Let's go back to that April 2003 Los Angeles Times poll. Respondents were asked to choose between two positions. One was, "Even though this is war, the U.S. military is doing the right thing in trying not to bomb areas where Iraqi civilians are being used as human shields." The second was, "This is war, so the U.S. military should bomb any Iraqi military position they think is necessary, regardless of whether Iraqi civilians are being used as human shields." Women picked the don't-bomb position by a margin of 38 points (63 to 25). Men picked it by a margin of 43 points (67 to 24). Men were more reluctant than women to kill.

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Sometimes it's hard to find the male war ethic in the midst of men's tolerance for bloodshed. But it's there. In March 2003, a Post survey  asked Americans whether we "should strike Iraqi military targets even if they are located in areas where civilians might be killed." By a margin of 18 points, men were more willing than women to strike the targets. But by a margin of 20 points, men were more opposed than women to "attack[ing] Iraq with nuclear weapons" in response to a chemical or biological assault on American troops. The more indiscriminate the weapon—a nuclear missile, as opposed to a laser-guided conventional bomb—the more uneasy men become.

What bothers men isn't nukes per se, but the prospect of slaughtering civilians. In March 2002, a USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll asked, "If the U.S. were attacked by terrorists using nuclear weapons, do you think the United States would be justified or not justified in using nuclear weapons against training camps and other facilities used by the terrorists that the U.S. believes were responsible for the attack?" Women said yes by a margin of 29 points. Men said yes by a margin of 47 points—an 18-point gap. But when the question was rephrased to ask whether we'd be justified in nuking "major cities in countries that harbor the terrorists," the gender gap shrank from 18 points to three.

You can't experiment with electric shocks in a poll—not yet, at least—but the next best thing is to ask about torture. Men outscore women by about 15 points in their willingness to administer torture, while women convey more intense empathy for its victims. In May 2004, when the Abu Ghraib scandal erupted, 39 percent of American women in a Post survey  said they were angry about it; only 22 percent of men said the same.

What's interesting is what happened to men's feelings over time. Shortly after the Abu Ghraib story broke, a USA Today survey asked Americans whether the abuse "bothers you a great deal, a fair amount, not much, or not at all." Eighty-three percent of women said they were bothered a great deal or a fair amount. Seventy-five percent of men said the same—an eight-point gender gap. A year later, the Army announced that as a result of its investigation, no high-level military officials would be punished. USA Today repeated its poll question and found that on average, one of every seven women who had previously claimed to be bothered a great deal or a fair amount no longer felt that way. The same loss of concern had happened to two of every seven men who had previously expressed such feelings, widening the gender gap from eight points to 17. Time, fading memory, and a verdict had relieved men's distress at twice the rate of women's.

The polls are in, and we men are guilty as charged: more judgment, less empathy, more schadenfreude. But what happens when empathy and schadenfreude collide? Three months ago, a Newsweek/PSRA poll asked Americans whether they'd "support the use of torture by U.S. military or intelligence personnel if it might lead to the prevention of a major terrorist attack." Two-thirds of the men said yes; only half the women agreed. Then respondents were asked whether they'd still support torture if it "makes it more likely that Americans will be tortured by our enemies." Schadenfreude for terrorists vs. empathy for Americans. What to do?

Among respondents who had supported torture on the first question, more than half the women dropped out. But more than two-thirds of the men said they'd still do it, making men twice as willing as women to trade torture for torture. How many men would do it to head off the attack? How many would do it just because the bastards deserve it? Who knows what hatred of evil lurks in the hearts of men?

Human Nature thanks Jodie Allen of the Pew Research Center, Jay Campbell of Hart Research, Claudia Deane of the Washington Post, Stacy DiAngelo of Princeton Survey Research Associates, Susan Page of USA Today, and Fritz Wenzel of Zogby International.