Social cognition can be argued to be a complex set of mental abilities that underlie stimulus perception. In other words, the cognitive aspects used to process, interpret and respond to the social world are what account for social cognition. Overall, these abilities are responsible for social competence and adaptation, especially in the social world.
Social cognition entails multiple abilities like understanding people’s thoughts and intentions, emotional understanding and social norm understanding. Sex difference in social cognition has been long debated. While earlier work presented men to have an advantage in the cognitive aspects of it and women to have an advantage in emotional recognition and understanding aspects — more recent work highlights this advantage doesn’t exist anymore. Similarly, links have been drawn to hypothesise and argue that enhanced socio-cognitive abilities lead to better social support that one acquires over the lifetime.
On comparing men and women in their socio-cognitive abilities and in their acquired social support networks, statistical analysis (independent sample t-test which is used to test if the difference between two groups is due to chance or due to statistical evidence) revealed that while overall sex differences in social cognition may not exist, a significant difference between men and women do exist in interpersonal social norm understanding which primarily refers to people’s abilities to understand and follow the rules around them.
Alternatively, this means that women performed significantly better and were more prudent in identifying norm violations while being confident in their ability to follow social norms better when compared to men — who had limited abilities when it came to an understanding and following rules. Similar findings have been confirmed by different research investigations across the globe, especially in the context of following norms during the covid-19 pandemic.
In addition, the finding is interesting because, in a sample of about 75 young adults in New Delhi, it was seen that despite the difference in people’s abilities to understand and follow social rules — the social support circles they create for themselves do not differ. In other words, this implies that the degree or extent to which individuals respect social rules and go by them does not necessarily translate into them getting social support or getting more people they can depend on in times of crisis.
The first implication of these findings is that women, despite being rule followers, and men, despite breaking social rules — get similar amounts of social support. Even though men continue to violate norms, the support they receive remains the same regardless. This raises a pertinent question which requires more attention from academia as well as policy research — if following social norms does not result in tangible benefits like having more people “on your side” or having more people “to count on”, why do women follow social norms more stringently than men?
The situation of trans women is more challenging given the systemic discrimination thrown their way.
The first reason behind this finding can be drawn from the socialisation process women are subjected. To be compliant with rules, one has to take the rules seriously. It can be hypothesised that women then take social rules and codes of conduct more seriously since these are more stringently enforced on this group. The policing is seen to start at younger ages when they’re constantly reminded of skirt lengths in convent schools, whereas boys’ uniforms have never created as much fuss.
Even in higher education institutions and workplaces, formal dress codes are garbed with just hints of sexism — implicit enough to keep women in check while managing to avoid being glaringly obvious. Restriction of individual choice and agency is one of the direct consequences of this rule-following behaviour that is promoted via the socialisation process.
Secondarily, women have also been more risk-averse historically, and these findings, too, have been prevalent in multiple investigations of different age groups and cultures. Risk aversion essentially translates to choosing situations of low uncertainty and making choices that lead to more predictable outcomes.
More recent research has highlighted that women are almost as likely to take risks; it’s just that those risks don’t pay off in the same way, i.e. the consequences of those risks for women are more often met with penalties that almost coerce the group into changing their behaviour to what is expected of them.
In workplaces, for instance, the group has been met with resistance and disapproving remarks for asking for better pay and for being more assertive. Linking it back to rule-following, one can argue that the space to deviate and then ignore social rules and codes of conduct becomes almost impossible for women — given that this ignorance is almost always followed by negative consequences.
In addition, the narratives about women’s social behaviour also shape their consequent actions. Media narratives currently focus on placing a disproportionate burden of responsibility on women, which has also been internalised by women. Simple phrases like “Be more careful” in everyday household conversations and extraneous variables about women’s clothes, appearance, locality, etc., being highlighted in headlines of national newspapers pertaining to cases of sexual violence all exacerbate the proportion of responsibility that is placed on the victim instead of the perpetrator. Thus, following the given “etiquette” and rules perhaps are seen as the only way to avoid this taxing sense of responsibility placed for all actions undertaken.
Essentially, evidence supports that while there are no tangible and desirable benefits like having a larger acquired social support network for complying with social norms, women continue to do it. Principally then, avoidance or escape learning can be used to explain this behaviour. In psychological terms, this type of learning predisposes an individual to respond to situations in ways in which they can avoid unpleasant or stressful situations.
Therefore, while rule-following may not bring them more people to depend on in times of crisis, it at least avoids punishment and avoids social ostracisation. In other words, the reinforcement of following social etiquette is simply the absence of punishment. Avoidance, to an extent, has an adaptive value in human behaviour, especially where real threats do exist. However, avoidance in the absence of real threats can impair the quality of life of individuals as it could keep them from becoming the most fulfilled version of themselves and hinder their ability to make free, independent choices.
These findings can have larger policy implications for mental health practitioners as well as for educational institutes and formal workplaces. Given the strong emphasis on following rules and abiding by social norms in larger societal narratives, it becomes difficult for most women to deviate from them to find their identity and reach their fullest potential. Institutions that do perpetuate these norms stringently (e.g., western academia) are more likely to find women within them facing an identity crisis: where they struggle to meet the standards of their feminist ideology in a larger patriarchal set-up.
Therefore, it is these contexts that can be argued to perpetuate risk-aversive behaviour in women, further limiting the avenue of women’s already restricted sense of choice and agency. Alternatively, making choices comes with a lot more responsibility — since decisions that lead to less than optimal outcomes have the potential to be publicly penalised and critiqued.
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A change in the narratives that perpetuate rewarding conformity in implicit, unnoticeable ways is therefore essential. Through this learning and internalisation, it can be argued that women are almost made to learn to not make independent choices that deviate from the prevalent social norms because these choices come at a disproportionate cost. This type of conditioning can be instrumental in perpetuating identity crises amongst the group and exacerbating the prevalent mental health concerns.
Devika Oberai is a psychology graduate and is currently working at SEWA Bharat as a Researcher, where her psycho-social research interests can intersect. She is interested in dissecting the role social institutions and narratives play in determining people’s mental health and behaviour. She can be found on Instagram.
Featured image source: The Guardian