When I was a kid, all enlightened people knew that gender stereotypes were the reason that boys preferred playing with trucks and girls preferred playing with dolls. The only people who didn’t believe that gender stereotypes controlled childhood behavior were the uneducated and … parents trying to raise their kids in stereotype-free conditions. For some reason the little boys were fashioning imaginary guns out of bananas, sticks, and their own genitalia while little girls were doing whatever you do when you’re not pretending to shoot people. The common explanation for the differences in boys and girls was that there’s no such thing as a stereotype-free environment. There’s always leakage, and kids are like sponges when it comes to role models. That explanation sounded reasonable to me for years.
Recently scientists have discovered that adolescent male monkeys prefer playing with trucks while adolescent female monkeys prefer dolls. As it turns out, toy preferences are more about chemistry than society.
You might say the monkey study is one more step in humanity’s slow-motion “discovery” that human behavior is caused by whatever chemicals are sloshing around in our skulls. On one hand we all know that the physical composition of our brains at any given moment dictates our choices, and yet we cling to the superstition that we exercise some sort of free will. Science, being awesome, keeps chipping away at that magical thinking.
In another study that I find more mind-boggling than the monkey research, scientists have found that women change their preferences in men when they go on birth control. Before the pill, women prefer men with high testosterone. After the pill, they prefer men with low testosterone. That process sounds like this: “Gee, Ted, I was hot for you until I started taking birth control pills. Now you look like an arrogant douche.”
The interesting thing is how a woman would interpret this revised view of Ted. I think a normal human in that situation would assume that either Ted became a worse human being or his existing bad qualities became harder to hide over time. No one would ever say the apparent changes in Ted are caused by a pill, or diet, or exercise, or any change in the observer’s brain chemistry. We believe our changes of opinion are caused by changes in the environment. It’s similar to the way parents once believed gender stereotypes caused little boys to prefer toy trucks. Our reflex is to blame the environment and not our own brain chemistry.
Yesterday I found myself getting angry because something that had been in a closet in the garage wouldn’t fit back in. I had two conversations happening in my head at the same time. The irrational part of me was pretty sure my anger was sparked by the frustrating closet situation, i.e. my environment. The rational part of me realized that I hadn’t exercised for two days, which is unusual for me, and I get grumpy 100% of the time in that situation. So today I’ll play tennis to fix my brain. By tonight I will be immune to the frustration of uncooperative storage spaces.
My neighborly advice for today is this: If you think your environment has taken a turn for the worse, consider the alternative explanation. Maybe the only thing that changed is your brain chemistry. Take a nap, drink some coffee, go for a walk, pet the dog, and try again.