There’s an interesting new academic in town. Roy Baumeister is an eminent professor of psychology who has recently moved to Brisbane. I’ve been in touch with him for many years because he is a world expert on gender differences in sexual desire. I quoted him in my recent books and he’s long been promoting my book, The Sex Diaries. Two years ago he invited me to talk with his Masters students doing a course on masculinity – great fun and a wonderful opportunity to visit Tallahassee, Florida.
The Weekend Australian recently published a story I wrote about him earlier this year – it’s not easy getting into that lively paper which succeeds so well in covering all the latest news and issues. So the story refers to his visits to Australia but he’s actually been living here most of the last year. But for those who didn’t catch up with the piece, here it is:
Gay marriage. Student harassment. Racial vilification. There’s an endless list of social issues dominating Australia’s culture wars, with ferocious lobby groups working hard to close down views that challenge the trendy orthodoxy. Well, there’s an eminent newcomer to town who loves getting up the nose of those trying to shut down proper debate.
American psychologist Roy Baumeister is known for ruffling feathers. One of the most highly cited psychology researchers in the world, Baumeister has recently moved from Florida State University to take up a professorship at the University of Queensland. The gender warriors should be on notice because Baumeister has a long history of using research evidence to take on their arguments.
He didn’t start out in this territory. Baumeister first made his mark exploding myths about self-esteem. He was touted in a profile describing his work as the “man who destroyed American’s ego” for proving high self-esteem is not a panacea for society’s ills. Baumeister was originally a believer in the self-esteem movement and began his studies assuming, like most people, that it was a good thing to boost kids’ self-esteem. To his surprise, that’s not what the research actually showed.
He ended up leading a team reviewing the literature for the American Psychological Society. “The first computer search on research on self-esteem came up with 15,000 papers. We had manuscripts stacked waist high,” he recalls, speaking from Brisbane during a recent trip.
This was in the 1980s when everyone was assuming if you boosted self-esteem you would also boost kids’ school performance, but that’s not how it turned out. “When they tracked people over time, the grades came first and then the self-esteem. High self-esteem was the result of good grades, not a cause.” Contrary to popular assumptions, boosting self-esteem also didn’t make people more likable, nor help their relationships. It didn’t prevent children from smoking or taking drugs, nor did it reduce violence.
That wasn’t what many people wanted to hear. “It was a shock to a lot of people,” reports Baumeister — a result he clearly rather enjoys. “I’ve always been a bit of a contrarian,” he explains, mentioning a time when he was just starting high school and noticed his mother, a teacher, giving a big sigh as she ploughed through a pile of exam papers she was marking. When he quizzed her about her reaction she replied it was so boring because most papers make exactly the same arguments.
“I remember thinking that if I could just answer the question differently, teachers would be more interested,” he says.
So he got into the habit of trying to approach things in a different way, looking for answers that were not what people would expect. “Both my successes and my failures have resulted from this strategy,” he says with a chuckle.
Much of Baumeister’s scholarly work is actually uncontentious. He’s a leading researcher on the difference between living a happy life and a meaningful life, and the role of conscious thought. He has also shown willpower is like a muscle — we can fatigue it if we overuse it, but we can also strengthen it through time and practice. Baumeister has authored more than 500 publications and been cited more than 100,000 times in research literature.
Yet some of his biggest successes have come from challenging current thinking in areas where the prevailing view is actually nonsensical. Like gender differences in sex drive. Even since the 1970s when there was much excitement about research showing women’s capacity for multiple orgasms there’s been a strong feminist push arguing women’s sex drives are generally as strong as those of men. The psychology literature is replete with articles by women arguing this case — yet out in the real world everyone knows that’s not true. Baumeister suggests we only need to think about the prevalence of jokes about men wanting sex and women knocking them back. He mentions the old chestnut from comedian Steve Martin: “You know that look women get when they want sex? Me neither.”
Well, Baumeister was the first to seriously investigate the truth of the matter, embarking in a series of studies, along with some female colleagues. One of these, Kate Catanese, started off totally convinced by the feminist rhetoric that there are no gender differences in sex drive, but as the evidence piled up ultimately she realised that was wrong.
The researchers examined more than 150 studies and concluded there was overwhelming evidence that men have more frequent sexual desires than women. The findings: men think about sex more often, desire more partners, masturbate more, want sex sooner, are less able or willing to live without sexual gratification, initiate more and refuse less sex, expend more resources and make more sacrifices for sex, desire and enjoy a broader variety of sexual practices, and have fewer complains about low sex drive.
“It’s pretty damn conclusive,” says a recent article in Psychology Today. Yet Baumeister still reports regular encounters with female academics, including some on his recent trip to Australia, claiming it just ain’t so.
Baumeister ended up as one of the world’s leading scholars in gender issues in sex drive, particularly famous for his notion of “erotic plasticity” — the idea that women have a more variable sex drive than men that is far more responsive to surrounding circumstances, while men have a more fixed, biologically determined drive that is relatively insensitive to context.
Baumeister illustrates his research findings with a quip from the movie When Harry Met Sally: “Women need a reason to have sex. Men just need a place.”
Common sense, you might say, but sadly academic psychology often does lose its way, captured by the latest ideology and deviating far from such self-evident truths.
Baumeister remains optimistic. “A nice thing about science is that one can assume the truth will win out in the end,” he says.
“To be sure, that requires freedom of thought, freedom of inquiry and freedom of speech. On politically charged topics there are strong and influential minorities who actively work against those freedoms.”
Gender, sexuality, and race are key areas in which there is limited openness to new ideas and new facts, suggests Baumeister. He resents what he sees as left-wing bias in social psychology: “White prejudice is studied frequently while inter-minority racism is comparatively ignored. If you have a finding that says the conservative viewpoint did better, no one wants to publish it.”
One topic that is hardly likely to win brownie points in the current social climate is research suggesting that men are better than women in anything whatsoever. That is precisely what attracted Baumeister — like a moth to the flame. He explains: “I’m not a gender researcher but I do follow research findings and started to notice a pattern. If you pay attention to what is covered in the mass media (or in the scientific journals) about gender differences, some will say there are no differences. Plenty say that women are better than men in this or that way. But it’s very rare to hear a story saying that men are better than women at anything at all.”
He concluded that most people who write about gender are “too intimidated by the feminist establishment to conduct an open-minded consideration of the relative advantages and disadvantages of both genders. The basic feminist dogma is that women are equal to or better than men at everything, and that all women’s problems and failures must be blamed on men.”
Take the common assumption that women are more social than men. Psychologists often make this claim but Baumeister points out the evidence is actually weak and applies mainly to one-to-one close relationships. He says if you define “social” in terms of large groups or networks, it is men who are more social as shown in team sports, military groups, even children’s playing styles.
“It was men’s ability to co-operate with casual acquaintances and strangers to work towards common goals that led to men creating wealth, knowledge and power — which led to the gender inequality that our society is struggling to overcome,” concludes Baumeister, who is happy to label himself a feminist.
Men’s unique social skills were a key theme when Baumeister found himself addressing the American Psychological Association in San Francisco on the topic “Is there anything good about men?”
This led to a book of the same name looking at how culture exploits men. In it he argues differences in gender roles are a trade-off. A few lucky men are at the top of society and enjoy the culture’s best rewards. Others, less fortunate, have their lives chewed up by it. One mistake of many modern feminists, he writes, is that they “look only at the top of society and draw conclusions about society as a whole. Yes, there are mostly men at the top. But if you look at the bottom, really at the bottom, you’ll find mostly men there, too.” His examples: The homeless; the imprisoned; or people who do dangerous jobs (92 per cent of deaths at work are male).
It is refreshing to find such a serious scholar who doesn’t steer clear of controversy. It will be interesting to see whether Baumeister’s gravitas can lend some balance to the distorted public discussion of so many issues, particularly around gender, in his newly adopted country.