When Men Won’t Do What They’re Told

A husband and wife team of researchers at Duke University have recently concluded a study (read about it at MSNBC or News-Medical.net) demonstrating that people instinctively resist infringement on their autonomy, even by those they love.

While participants in the study were performing word puzzles on a screen, the names of loved ones were flashed quickly enough that they only registered subliminally. When the names of people who wanted the participants to work hard were flashed, they performed worse than when the names flashed were of people who wanted the participants to be happy and have fun. A second experiment confirmed that some react more strongly than others to the difference between those who want hard work from us and those who want us to enjoy ourselves.

However, rather than trumpeting this as evidence that the desire for liberty and happiness is a universal human instinct, lead researcher Tanya Chartrand describes the research and findings in disturbingly authoritarian ways that reveal a hierarchical, manipulative, and sexist1 attitude toward what should be a relationship between equals.

Some quotes from Chartrand:

On her inspiration for the study: “My husband, while very charming in many ways, has an annoying tendency of doing exactly the opposite of what I would like him to do in many situations.”

In other words, he acts like an independently minded equal. I would bet even money that Chartrand’s husband considers her “annoying tendency” to tell him what to do “exactly the opposite” of what he would like from a partner.

On her research premise: “Psychologists have known for some time that reactance can cause a person to work in opposition to another person’s desires. We wanted to know whether reactance could occur even when exposure to a significant other, and their associated wishes for us, takes place at a nonconscious level.”

In other words, do people instinctively resist your desires when those desires conflict with their own desires? I wasn’t aware that Duke had a Department of Obvious Psychology.

On her findings: “The main finding of this research is that people with a tendency toward reactance may nonconsciously and quite unintentionally act in a counterproductive manner simply because they are trying to resist someone else’s encroachment on their freedom.”

Another way to put it might be “people may resist encroachment on their freedom even when the source of aggression is a loved one.” Why characterize as “counterproductive” behavior that sabotages perceived sources of subordination? When success and productivity is defined so narrowly it raises the question: Is the behavior of a research subject (or a husband) to be judged solely in relation to how diligently they perform Chartrand’s assigned tasks?2

On the implications for her husband: “[He] should now be better equipped to suppress his reactant tendencies.”

Or, better equipped to locate the real source of problems in his marriage: a partner who assumes the privilege to direct his actions without dissent or resistance, and who characterizes the drive for autonomy as if it were pathological. It is Chartrand who should suppress her inappropriately aggressive tendency to expect her adult male partner to behave like a subordinate.

There are many human relationships that naturally assume a vertical and heirarchical structure, but domestic partnerships are not one of them. They should be horizontal relationships between equals.

Moreover, Chartrand’s subordinating attitude toward her husband even corrupts the professional integrity of her research: characterizing a person’s instinctive resistance to subordination as “counterproductive” is a political, authoritarian judgement, not a scientific one.



* The MSN article is entitled “Men can’t help but ignore their wives: Psychologists offer insights into why husbands refuse to take out the trash.”

** [David’s later note, 11 May 2009] Shouldn’t we be celebrating the instinct for individual autonomy?

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