You can watch monkeys use reason to figure out how to crack a nut but you don’t see them buying up copies of The Secret, having MUFON meetings or finding religion and making other monkeys miserable with it. Animals just take life as-is; it’s people that are forever trying to find a tunnel out of reality, whether it’s via movies, drugs, games or just their ability to look at crap and call it candy.
I’m quite good at this and if I want a situation to work I can overlook enough red flags to upholster China. I didn’t want to believe one of my friends, for example, when she said that women “like us” –unorthodox, assertive and independent - were not to most men’s taste, that we were “too much,” that lots of men didn’t want the challenge. I blew it off, but the fact that it never left my mind meant there was probably something to it I just wasn’t prepared to admit.
Her words came back to me when Jesse James - who, for awhile there was link a drowning man, sinking lower every time he opened his mouth – cheated on Sandra Bullock. How could anyone louse that up and was resentment of her success a part of it? I thought about that while I seethed on her behalf post-Oscars 2010, but it wasn’t until I dealt with one of the biggest pussies to walk the earth since the last female dinosaur dropped dead (a lover who decided the best way to discard me was via Facebook) that I had to wincingly admit there are indeed men who, when it comes to women, have huge balls…but not much courage.
Much more recently we have Arnold Schwarzenegger's fall from grace - and this report on Hollywood Life saying that Arnold preferred mistresses that did not have the pizzazz of his Hollywood circle, essentially because with them he could be the glamorous one.
Shortly before that recent bombshell, though...there came the chart.
The journal Evolutionary Psychology recently ran a report written by link (University of Southern Mississippi) about his study with Dr. Erin Myers (West Carolina University) titled “An Implicit Theory of Self-Esteem The Consequences of Perceived Self-Esteem for Romantic Desirablity,” about how we perceive self esteem in relation to other traits in the opposite sex (warmth, attractiveness, success) and whether we prefer partners with low, midrange or high self esteem. One of the study charts shows that when it comes to overall mate value women prefer men with high self-esteem but men prefer women with only moderate self-esteem…not by a big margin, but a majority nonetheless. Another study that included greater ranges of self esteem showed that women and men both preferred partners with somewhat high self esteem to those with high self-esteem but men preferred women with somewhat low self esteem to those with the high self esteem.
I didn’t want to believe this. I really like men. They are the people I have sex with (at least historically), fall in love with, build so many of my stupid little dreams around (except the one about the monkey and the Airstream; that’s mine, all mine). I don’t even know if I would fall into the high self-esteem category, but the idea that a man might not like a woman because she likes herself wasn’t something I really wanted to think was true.
So I called Dr. Zeigler-Hill and asked him if I was interpreting this fairly. If men know they won’t always be the most interesting person in the room, do they really pick women who will assure them that at least they’ll be the most interesting person in the house? Men say they like confidant women… but what man is going to say otherwise?
“Exactly,” Zeigler-Hill says, and though there are nuances to consider he says my friend was right: “at a broad level, men appear to be somewhat intimidated by women with really high self esteem.” He notes that in the study where the self-esteem range went higher the researchers speculated “high self-esteem” was differently applied to women; that women who had it were seen as full of themselves, even somewhat narcissistic, whereas the men weren’t seen that way.
Both men and women, he says, have mate preferences that tend to reflect beliefs of the “male being the breadwinner,” era, “because women are attracted to males with status and resources and men tend to be intimidated to some degree by women who have more than they have which ends up being a really big challenge for really successful women.”
It’s a complex issue, he says and confluence of influences sculpt our attitudes toward potential mates, including how we were raised and in what era: “If we’d done this study 30 years ago my guess is we’d have seen a much more pronounced effect.” He points out that the age of the subjects is relevant: they were college students. “Men, when they get more established in their own lives, may not be quite as intimidated by more confident women,” (Mr. James is in his 40’s and Arnold is 63, so maturing isn’t guaranteed).
And speaking of, it’s when we discuss those very public break-ups wherein it’s hard to imagine a man not being content with his movie star wife, that Dr. Zeigler Hill hints at a light at the end of the tunnel: what kind of man it is that drives the results of these studies? Probably, he says, “men with low self-esteem and fragile high self esteem.”
What, I ask, is fragile high self-esteem?
In a word: narcissism.
“There are some people out there who say they feel really good about themselves but if you dig beneath the surface it turns out their feelings are really vulnerable and they tend to change a lot from day to day,” he says of self-esteem fragility, his main area of study. Often “Grandiosity and positivity may just really be a façade that people use to protect themselves from their own underlying feeling of inferiority.” About a week after Dr. Zeigler-Hill and I spoke, James copped to his feelings of insecurity as the husband of a film star in this story from ANI (Asian News International) quoting the Daily Mail.
And it works. Narcissists are charming and exciting but after awhile cracks in the façade emerge: they appear narcissistic “and all the underlying problems – the escaping of guilt and refusal to take responsibility and all the stuff that drive people crazy in long term relationships,” comes out. The development of narcissism makes sense from an evolutionary psych perspective, Dr. Zeigelr-Hill says, because being valued by the group is important: if you’re ostracized you’re not going to get your genes passed on or possibly even survive. You better at least seem important.
So could it be narcissism that would cause someone to cheat his way out of a Sandra or a Halle Berry (I know her split with alleged sex addict Eric Benet was eons ago – 2003 – but I was so dumbfounded that anyone would cheat on her that I never forgot it).
“You have these really successful, really beautiful women who are just adored by a large segment of the population and they’re in thee relationships with men who, while they may have certain aspects of popularity on their own they just completely pale in comparison to their female partners,” Dr. Zeigler-Hill says. “I wonder if part of their behavior may just have been a way to establish their dominance in their own relationships, hoping that their partners found out about it,” Of course one never knows what goes on between two people –sometimes they don’t even know – but a man so outmatched may try “to establish dominance by cheating…or physical abuse, like Chris Brown and Rhianna.”
I never even brought Chris Brown up. Is there anything better than an academic who knows his gossip mags?
The bad news is that narcissists, for all their bluster, don’t actually announce themselves, so how do you know if someone's narcissistic or just has a lot of confidence? Even in that last study the researchers write that they were studying a level of self-esteem that might have bordered on narcissism.
I would say if they can put other people’s feelings first, empathize and share credit as well as blame those are all good signs that you’re dealing with a healthily confident person… confident enough not to need to be the center of attention.
The good news is that if narcissism makes some men uncomfortable with confident women those women have dodged a bullet. It’s kind of like not getting taken up in The Rapture…who would want to hang out with the crowd who did?
So while the initial results felt dispiriting, the nuances behind the numbers tell a different story. Sure, it feels like it shrinks the pool of men, but only by taking out the drips you can live without. For every guy made uncomfortable by feminine confidence there's probably a Stedman Graham or a Neil Murray, men, who are fine with muchess.
At least, that’s what I’ve decided to believe. This week.