September 8, 2005

Boys and your ineffectual subtle cues.

They might not get them:
"If teachers attempt to control boys by subtle means, such as raised eyebrows, and the boys ignore these cues, it may be that they simply are not able to read them and decode them accurately," explained Professor David Skuse, whose team at the Institute of Child Health in London conducted the research.

"It's not that they are being wilfully oppositional," he told the British Association's Festival of Science, which this year is being held in Dublin, Ireland.

The study on 600 children between the ages of six and 17 was actually undertaken to investigate aspects of autism, a predominantly male condition.

The institute hopes eventually to find the genetic factors that lead more boys than girls into this disorder....

The differences at school-entry were specifically to do with the facial expressions tasks.

"At six years, 70% of boys are below the mean for girls; so in other words, 70% of boys are worse than 50% of girls," Professor Skuse explained.

"It means there are a lot of boys at school entry who are very poor at differentiating other people's emotions from their facial expressions.

Males eventually catch up with females, however, so, guys, don't try to use this as an excuse your adult relationship gaffes.


Pastor_Jeff said...

It makes a lot of sense on the face of it. Males in general focus more on outcomes than process, and have to work harder at active listening as a skill.

Plus, it does explain a lot about our 9- and 7-year-old boys. :-)

Paul said...

Is that last sentence scientifically proven or simply female intuition?

Ann Althouse said...

Paul: It's in the article.

Mom Underground said...

Interesting. Something to keep in mind as my boys get older. However, my 4-year-old (boy) can definitely interpret my facial expressions and those of other adults as a result, primarily as a means of subtle discipline. Did the study have anything to say about parents who use certain facial expressions as a discipline tactic and how well their boys then did in this study? My equivalent of the stink eye does wonders for settling down rambunctious behavior without saying a word.

Slocum said...

Shrug. Let's assume their numbers are right. In a kindergarten class with 20 students, you'd expect to have 12 students below the female average (5 girls and 7 boys) and 8 students above the female average (5 girls and 3 boys). Of the students who are below the female average, 42% (5 of 12) will be girls. Of the students who are above the female average 38% (3 of 8) will be boys. In other words, not all that dramatic a difference even in kindergarten when the difference is most pronounced.

If these findings were to result in sensitivity to kids who are not yet good at reading emotions, that's fine, I suppose. If they were to result in some kind of boy-specific remediation -- ugh.

Bruce Hayden said...

I am not the least bit surprised. We have known that males are much less observant of subtle cues. Back to that book you mentioned awhile back by Baron-Cohen, "The Essential Difference", this is part of the "empathizing" that he talks about. He also gets into the connection there with autism.

I would suggest that partially it is that we (on average - usual bell curve proviso) males are less able to identify moods, etc. than can females, and partially, we just don't care as much.

My pet peeve as a male is that female teachers and the like at the lower levels seem to expect males to react as they would, and the girls do, and seem to think that there is something wrong with the boys when they don't - when in reality the problem is that there are fundamental differences (again means of bell curves) between the two sexes.

mcg said...

I have always held that women must be very careful never to underestimate how dense we men can be. Master that rule and life with men will go well for you, grasshopper.

Pastor_Jeff said...

I understand that useful insights may come out of studies like this, but really - how much time and money are wasted on researching things that we already know? "Study: Men, women different"

What I'd like to know is if the word verficiation software is designed to exclude actual words.

vnjagvet said...

I agree with Bruce and Slocum on this. This sounds like a "study" which has a firm grasp on the obvious.

The elementary teachers of old (40's and 50's), many of whom were unmarried females in my experience, seemed to have a knack for dealing with obstreperous boy people.

I was certainly one of those. Indeed I have recently been told by friends who knew me then that had they been diagnosing youngsters with ADD or the like back then, I would have been a candidate for rather large doses of Ritalin.

But my elementary school teachers were able to maintain my attention and although my "conduct" grades were not always great, my academic grades were pretty good. I went on to college,law school, and a reasonably successful career as a practicing attorney.

While my ability to read facial
cues might not have been acute, I understood that a bad report card -- be it conduct or academics -- would result in p***** off parents.

My mom had no trouble getting my attention when I showed a lack of application in the classroom. In the last analysis, I am sure that consistent approach and skillful, patient teachers, were better than Ritalin.

EddieP said...

When I was in the fifth grade, I did something disruptive in class. Our teacher, Miss Gregory promptly invited me to the front of the classroom, and to stick out my left hand. She delivered a stinging blow to the back of my hand. No raised eyebrow could have had the effect that had on me, but every boy in the class as well. I still thank her for that little bit of course correction she gave me. I was never a problem with any teacher again.

vnjagvet said...


I think they had a knack for knowing what worked on what person back then. Boys got a bit more "attention" sometimes but, as you point out, it was customized, appropriate and effective.

Pat Patterson said...

I've noticed that teenage boys do not respond well to facial cues, but they do respond to the possibility of a physical reaction from the teacher. Even when the boys know that an actual physical confrontation or corporal discipline is unlikely they will pause and often correct themselves. The trick then is to convey this possibility without it being seen as the bluff it actually represents. I've found that knuckleheaded freshman generally turn into semi-cooperative juniors, as they civilize and have a little more control over their hormones.

Bruce Hayden said...

I am reminded of a guy I knew who taught 7th grade math some 30+ years ago. The other junior high teachers were amazed at his lack of discipline problems. What he would do, early each school year in each such class, was to pick up one misbehaving boy one handed and push him up against the wall (in front of the rest of the class). Worked wonders for male discipline - he never had to repeat.

Unfortunately, you can't do this any more. And, note that none of the boys was ever actually hurt this way.

Bruce Hayden said...

Ann said: "Males eventually catch up with females, however, so, guys, don't try to use this as an excuse your adult relationship gaffes".

I respectfully disagree. Maybe the guys you hang around, but I don't think that that is really typical. We may catch up scholastically, but I don't think we ever (on average) catch up in the ability to read facial cues.

I know that I try, but have learned over my 50+ years how bad I really am at this.

Ann Althouse said...

Bruce: It's in the article, based on the study. It's not about brain differences in adults. You're talking about a character flaw. That's assuming the study got it right.

vnjagvet said...

Character flaw, humbug.

Meade said...

The article reinforces my opinion that sex -segregated schooling K-12 yields a better educational experience for girls because they don't have the distractions and interruptions of obtuse boys who are, after all, dangerously close to a state of savagery.

After boys come out of their stage of blatant thick skulled-ness, which the article says comes at the end of their adolescence, they are ready to be mixed back in with young unmarried women who then are able to civilize them through the use of both verbal and body language and the conscious regulation of sex.

Jeff said...

Not mentioned is the distinct possibility that many boys read and understand the signals of their female teachers but proceed to ignore them anyway! What's the worst that could happen, more talk?

An eternal phenomenon which mothers used to respond to with: "Just wait 'til your father gets home!"

When Dad got home, he would usually make a subtle gesture that boys would immediately recognise and respond to: the hand reaching for the belt...

Diane said...

of Diane's Rules for a Happy Marriage to a Man that I've developed over the years,the most important has always been:

Subtitle hints do not work. Obvious hints do not work. Telling him exactly what you want using Anglo-Saxon monosyllables, charts and hand puppets *sometimes* works. You don't get angry with cats for wanting to hunt baby birds. You don't get mad at men for not understanding what seems perfectly obvious to you. Be patient with them for this. Your empathy seems excessive to him and the resulting emotions require his understanding an patience too.

Of course my rules do not apply to all men. Some men are better than your average woman at interpreting the moods of others, so underestimating them can be dangerous. And though we shouldn't be angry with men who are not able to understand emotions, we have every right to be mad at men who don't try.

The trouble is differentiating between the two.

Simon said...

There's a fascinating book by psychologists Barbara and Allan Pease called "Why me don't listed and women can't read maps" that discusses in some depth the differences between male and female brain archietecture, and the consequences for behaviour. It's well worth a read.

vnjagvet said...

There seems to be a penumbra of superiority emanating from several of the female commentators here.

What ever happened to the idea of a mutual equal partnership?

Guys, it sounds like it's time to put up some of those anecdotes about the peculiarities of the female of the species like how they tend to dawdle while getting ready for an appearance or other such well-documented traits.

Nawwww, Ann probably wouldn't appreciate it. Too stereotypical.

Meade said...

Jim, dawdling is a fetchingly enchanting sweet little quirk possessed by only the most attractive women. To the well-developed man who has graduated from adolescence, it can be downright sexy.

Complaining about dawdling is a character flaw.

Slocum said...

I know that I try, but have learned over my 50+ years how bad I really am at this.

But you are an N of 1. In my family I'm better at this than my wife is. She often comes home with stories of being badly treated by service people of one kind or another. Occasionally I'm with her and see how it happens--when she gets a bit nervous, she gets stiff and formal and she doesn't notice how this affects the people she's interacting with. I cringe and sometimes step in to smooth things over. And she's good at reading maps and has a great sense of direction. But it's not as if we have gender-reversed brains in general. Things (and people) are more complicated than that.

People who think males are generally bad at this sort of thing have to stop and ask themselves -- are males generally poor politicians? Are males hopeless as salesmen? Even, are males generally inept in wooing women? Because success in all of these is dependent on skilled reading of people's reactions.

Bruce Hayden said...


I would suggest that just as I am N=1, so are you. This entire discussion is predicated on bell curve means, and, thus, the fact that you are better at this than your wife is just as irrelevant as that I am bad at it.

As to your suggestions, it doesn't take much in reading facial cues to make TV commercials. At the national level, we seem to see a lot of people buying their seats - which means that they really never had to be very good at the retail level of politics. Instead, just drop a couple of million of your own money on TV ads. At least here in CO, we see a much higher female participation in local politics. This is evolving, and I wouldn't be surprised if ultimately women do predominate. Also, I think that there is still some residual greater trust in men as leaders than women. (More decisive, less dithering? Thrown out just to alienate more of the women here).

As to sales, I don't know the actual figures, but would not be surprised if there were more women in the field now. Some areas, such as real estate, seem to be getting quite lop sided in favor of women.

Thirdly, wooing. Well, what can I say. Ann had a thread yesterday where we were talking peripherally about how some day two women may be able to have a kid together. But not yet. There is a lot still pushing the two sexes together, whether you look at it as sex drive, evolution, genetic success, etc.

Also, the fact that one guy can figure out how to read the facial cues of one or a very few women is not really that relevant. By now, I can probably read my girlfriend better than her ex husband can. That doesn't mean though that men on average can read facial cues on strangers as well as women can, or, in particular, that I am any good at it.

Meade said...

"Also, I think that there is still some residual greater trust in men as leaders than women. (More decisive, less dithering?"

Maybe so. But with more studies coming out like this one suggesting that boys in general lack the ability, biologically, to appropriately respond to emotions expressed by facial cues, even that 'residual greater trust' will evaporate as most women (and men who have successfully adjusted to adult life) are able to perceive at subtler and subtler levels which male leaders themselves emerged from adolescent obtuseness and which ones remain somewhat thick.

JB said...

I don't often disagree with you Ann, but when you stated that ignoring subtle cues is a character flaw, I had to protest.

Maybe it's just my perspective, and I think Jeff has it pretty much right

Not mentioned is the distinct possibility that many boys read and understand the signals of their female teachers but proceed to ignore them anyway! What's the worst that could happen, more talk?

If it isn't worth saying directly, why is it worth my effort trying to figure out what the other person is saying? I'm supposed to put up with passive aggressive behavior ...because???

Neither is a character flaw, just different expectations of communications. But remember in communicating, it's always said that it's the speaker's responsibility to make sure that the audience gets the message.

I get the message of a subtle hint, and it tells me not to care as much.

stoqboy said...

Just to generalize my experience, and to reinforce what Diane said, I wish women would be much less subtle. Subtlety is often ambiguous. Monosyllabic hand puppets are just what I need. Spell it out, put it in neon, we'll get along just fine.

Bruce Hayden said...

I will suggest esp. for any of the women there who persist in believing that this is some sort of male personality deficiency, that they read some of Deborah Tannen's books on male/female communications. While this is not specifically on point here, they do address the problem that often female communications has a lot more emotional overtones than does male communications.

So, sometimes things do have to be laid out more bluntly, and a lot less subtlely for us guys. Sorry, but that is the way it is.

Slocum said...

As to your suggestions, it doesn't take much in reading facial cues to make TV commercials. At the national level, we seem to see a lot of people buying their seats - which means that they really never had to be very good at the retail level of politics. Instead, just drop a couple of million of your own money on TV ads.

I was talking about politics with a small 'p' -- that is to say, not national politics, but the politics of life. The politics of friendships, alliances, and rivalries. Corporate politics. The 'good old boys' network. The politics inherent in managing one's subordinates (and bosses).

These kinds of people skills have been important to men's survival and success since before recorded history (actually, since chimps exhibit similar behaviors, one could argue these skills have been critical to men since before they were even yet human). So the pop-psych idea that males are inherently bad at this kind of thing makes no sense at all.