Speculations About the Psychology of Misusing “Bitch” and “Creep”

There are six foundations in Jonathan Haidt’s influential ‘Moral Foundations Theory.’ One of them, “purity” is about disgust and sanctity. Another, “hierarchy” is about appropriate displays of respect and who may disrespect whom. I think together they conspire to cause people to mislabel others as bitches and creeps. (For purposes of discussion, I’m stipulating that it’s inappropriate to call someone a bitch or a creep if they aren’t doing anything harmful.)

One of the coolest findings in moral psychology is how people unconsciously confuse moral disgust and regular disgust. People in gross rooms are more punitive than those in clean ones.[1] People feel less morally guilty after they cleanse themselves.[2] People with innately higher disgust sensitivities are more likely to think crime suspects are guilty.[3] When a woman mislabels a harmless but unattractive man a “creep”, it’s plausibly a consequence of this conflation. She sees someone who disgusts her socially or sexually and she conflates her repugnance with moral repugnance.

I think this is most of what’s going on, but it’s not the whole story.

People bristle at taking orders from people they don’t accept as higher-status than them. People, especially conservatives, tend to strongly moralize appropriate displays of respect: children should respect parents; workers should respect bosses; citizens should respect the President.[4] Look at the common sentence “Who do you think you are, talking to me like that?” Notice that it’s not the less-common, “How dare anyone talk to me that way?” It seems to be suggesting that someone else, plausibly someone higher-status, could talk to you that way.

When you hit on someone, you are kinda-sorta hinting that they are roughly as attractive as you or at least that they are “in your league.” If someone hits on you who you perceive as much less attractive than you, this can be seen as an insult to your perceived attractiveness. “How dare you disrespect me by calling me ugly enough to be in your league!” Many women perceive their status as extremely correlated with their attractiveness and don’t take kindly to a perceived lowering of their status.

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Bitch-mislabeling plausibly has much less to do with disgust and much more to do with hierarchy. People are angered by bitchiness. People are rarely grossed-out by bitchiness. In contrast, people plausibly are disgusted by creepiness.

There are two kinds of status: dominance status and prestige status.[5] Dominance status has to do with fear. Prestige status has to do with admiration. High school bullies have dominance status. Nobel laureates have prestige status. One way people get dominance status is by being physically imposing—muscular or tall. Another way is by having a loud and booming voice. I have a hunch that many men have a subconscious voice in the back of their mind whispering: “I’m not afraid of this person. I could take this person in a fight. How dare they boss me around!

Psychologist Amy Cuddy has documented which kinds of body language display power and which display submissiveness.[6] To make a long story short: power body language is about taking up space and submissive body language is about doing the opposite. Maybe unsurprisingly, the power poses are interpreted as masculine and the submissive poses are interpreted as feminine.[7] Now if a woman was muscular and did have a baritone voice, and did project power with her body language, people would still shame her—but not for being an “illegitimate authority”. They would shame her because she’s acting manly. It might not be moral shame, but people would still disapprove. I often see female bodybuilders laughed at in a way that male bodybuilders aren’t.

So women are in something of a bind: If they look, sound and act in ways that would lead to people naturally deferring to them, they will be shamed for being manly. But if they try to act powerful without doing these things, people will unconsciously reject their position of dominance and mislabel them bitches even when they are not being rude.

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[1] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2562923/

[2] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16960010

[3] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18837611

[4] http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2184440

[5]http://www2.psych.ubc.ca/~henrich/pdfs/Cheng%20et%20al.%20(2013)%20-%20Two%20Ways%20to%20the%20Top.pdf

[6]http://www.ted.com/talks/amy_cuddy_your_body_language_shapes_who_you_are?language=en

[7]http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2013/12/27/gendered-and-the-body-language-of-power

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