Anyone who has taken an introductory psychology class has been exposed to the theory of behaviorism. In a nutshell, behaviorists believe that the reason human beings feel, think, and behave the way they do is a result of rewards and punishments. If a seven year old child gets ice cream when she gets an A on a test, she will keep wanting to try and get an A. If an adult in a romantic relationship gets scolded every time he leaves the toilet seat up, he will eventually stop doing it. It’s a very basic principle, but is also one that dominated the field of psychology for decades.
It is this very principle that came to mind when I was reading Kay Hymowitz’s article entitled, “Where Have All the Good Men Gone?” In this article, Hymowitz laments the fact that most men in their twenties are more like overgrown children then “real men”–more interested in drinking, porn, hanging out with their buddies, and playing video games than establishing meaningful relationships with women. I personally believe Hymowitz is right. This opinion comes not from personal experience but from the stories I hear over and over again from women in their twenties trying to find Mr. Right. However, what to do about this is where Hymowitz and I probably diverge.
Research shows that on average men are just as interested in developing long term relationships as women, but are more interested in short-term, one-night stand relationships. You could argue this is evolution, socialization, or both, but the good news is that men are in fact interested in long-term, committed relationships. But over time as women have become more sexually liberated and standards of waiting until marriage for sex having basically gone by the way side for both genders, an unfortunate consequence has resulted: women have been feeding the beast of men’s desire for short-term relationships. Being able to spend most of the day playing video games and getting drunk while also still reaping the reward of short-term relationships is hard for men to turn down.
This is not fair and women have been the unfortunate victims of this cultural phenomenon. But what is the solution? The best option is that men should learn to not focus on short-term relationships–we should raise them better, build better societal structures to promote long term relationships, and (if you have an evolutionary viewpoint) work on ways to counteract men’s innate desire to have as much sex as possible.
But should we also look to women to play a role in this process? In his book Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man, Steve Harvey talks about men like animals and the importance of rewards and punishments. Harvey actively acknowledges his suggestions might not work so well with feminists, but makes suggestions like waiting ninety days before having sex with men to ensure he is truly in it for the right reasons.
I believe there is some morsel of truth to Harvey’s claims. If we as a society want men to grow up and be real men–whatever that definition is–it’s critical that we go back to the simple rules of behaviorism. People will feel, think, and behave in ways that they are rewarded or punished for. If we truly want men to change, we can hope they will reward and punish themselves, but acknowledge that we (and especially the women dealing with them) must also play a part.
Editor’s note: This piece is part of a symposium in which a variety of writers and thinkers weigh in on the question: “Can men be men again?” See earlier takes by Emily Esfahani Smith, Mark Judge, Mark Tapson, R. J. Moeller, Ben Domenech, a second post by Emily Esfahani Smith, Abby Schachter, and Anthony Dent. All of the posts are compiled here.